If The Going Gets Rough, Gephardt's Got A Scrapper
By James Carney/Washington
Get ready for a fight. That was the message Bill Clinton's allies on Capitol Hill sent Ken Starr and Republicans last Friday when they appointed Abbe D. Lowell as the Democrats' chief counsel for any impeachment-related proceedings against the President. Named one of Washington's 50 top lawyers last year, Lowell, 46, is a Bronx-bred former civil rights attorney who specializes in defending politicians and businessmen. Renowned within the Beltway for his combative manner and impressive trial record, Lowell is particularly skilled at turning legal and ethical problems into matters of mere politics--to the great benefit of his clients. And he has no fear of offending his opponents. Regardie's magazine once declared that Lowell "may well be the most irritating lawyer in Washington...always yipping and nipping in your face."
Officially, Lowell will serve as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, John Conyers. But the decision to hire him for what could be the highest-profile legal-defense job in a generation was made in large part by Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, and two other committee Democrats, Barney Frank and Howard Berman. The goal, say insiders, was to bring in someone capable of fighting a partisan war on a legal battlefield. "This situation doesn't call for a law-school dean, former-judge type," says a source familiar with the decision. "This could be a pretty scrappy fight."
And one in which Gephardt, a likely challenger for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, has a lot at stake. Not too long ago, Gephardt was engaged in some bitter policy clashes with both Clinton and Vice President Gore. But that was pre-Monica. Gephardt has spent the past seven months suppressing his own Oval Office ambitions in order to defend its current occupant. Every two weeks since April he has convened a meeting in his office with Conyers, Frank, Berman and top staff members to talk about the Lewinsky scandal, the timing of a report from Starr and its probable impact on Democrats in this November's midterm elections. The outcome of the elections could determine Gephardt's future. If the Democrats pick up 11 seats, Gephardt becomes Speaker of the House, a prime launching pad for a presidential campaign. But if the Democrats lose seats in an anti-Clinton tidal wave, Gephardt's prospects could be seriously diminished. "[Gephardt] knows his fate, and the fate of the whole Democratic Party, is inextricably linked to Clinton," says a party strategist. "For now, anyway, we're all on the same side."