Reagan Lawyer Ready to Return to White House
By JIM RUTENBERG
January 9, 2007
WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 — President Bush has chosen Fred F. Fielding as the new
chief White House lawyer, adding to his team a longtime Washington legal
hand and veteran of the post.
Mr. Fielding forged his skills in politically charged episodes like
Watergate and the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981.
White House officials said Mr. Bush would announce as early as Tuesday that
Mr. Fielding would return as White House counsel, succeeding Harriet E.
Miers, who announced her resignation last week. The officials insisted on
anonymity to discuss an unannounced personnel decision.
Mr. Fielding’s agreement to take the job surprised some of his closest
friends. The friends said last week, when his name surfaced as a contender
for the position, that they would be surprised if he would give up a
successful corporate practice for another stint of what promises to be heavy
partisan battle at age 67.
Mr. Fielding was deputy counsel to President Richard M. Nixon under John W.
Dean III and was White House counsel for the first five years of Ronald
Since then, he has kept a hand in politics and government, helping screen
job candidates for President Bush during and after his transition, and
serving on the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.
Several friends said they believed that he had been under heavy pressure to
return as White House counsel by an administration girding for a raft of
investigations by the new Democratic Congress.
The news of his selection was first reported on Monday afternoon on the Time
magazine Web site.
Officials said Mr. Fielding was always a leading candidate of the White
House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, who is said to have been seeking a
possible change in the counsel’s office from the moment he took over as
chief of staff in April.
But several Republicans close to the White House said Mr. Bush swiftly
dismissed that notion. Ms. Miers had been Mr. Bush’s lawyer in Texas and
followed him here. Mr. Bush nominated her to the Supreme Court in 2005, but
she withdrew amid criticism of her qualifications.
Mr. Bolten pushed again for a new White House counsel after the Democrats
won control of both chambers of Congress in November and he concluded that
the president would need a more seasoned Washington creature in the months
ahead, Republicans close to the administration said.
He found one in Mr. Fielding, known as such an expert player of the inside
game of Washington politics that he had even been suspected as Deep Throat,
the confidential source of information who led to the disclosures of the
Mr. Fielding was not Deep Throat, but he is likely to bring a more
sophisticated sense of the interplay among Congress, the news media and the
White House than Ms. Miers.
The selection of such a battle-hardened hand as Mr. Fielding for the counsel
post underscores the degree to which the White House is girding for
potentially intense battles with Democrats. He would help prepare for the
possibility that the new Congress may use hearings and, possibly, subpoenas
to challenge Mr. Bush’s broad assertions of executive power.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who is chairman of
the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sounded a somewhat
“I’m hopeful that he will understand that the best way to represent his
client is to cooperate when the Congress asks for information,” Mr. Waxman
said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Fielding has a nuanced record on executive privilege and partisan
confrontation. Associates say he is as likely to head for the negotiating
table as to the wrestling mat.
Lee H. Hamilton, the Democratic vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission,
said Mr. Fielding had a major role in securing information and testimony
from the White House that it was initially loathe to share.
“He understood the problems for the White House and he understood the
demands of the commission,” Mr. Hamilton said. “He played a key role in
working it out for us in an amicable way, and it didn’t come easily.”
In the counsel’s position, Mr. Fielding will lead a White House legal team
that includes David S. Addington, the powerful chief of staff to Vice
President Dick Cheney. Both officials have advocated a tough line in
protecting executive power against perceived intrusions by Congress.
A Republican close to the White House said Mr. Fielding had maintained close
ties to Mr. Cheney, whom he has known for decades, and had occasionally been
an informal adviser to him.
J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge who worked with Mr. Fielding in
the Reagan administration and remains close to him, said:
“He has a firm, clear view of executive prerogative, but he also understands
as well as anyone in Washington the constitutional need for compromise. He
is not someone that takes an absolutist position and then drives the
presidency and the branches together off the brink. He has judgment.”
Mr. Luttig said Mr. Fielding had wrestled somewhat with the decision to
become White House counsel, but ultimately, “He did this out of a sense of
obligation and patriotism, and that was the sole reason.”
Republicans close to the White House said Mr. Fielding had assurances of
having a wide berth that he apparently received last week in a meeting with
Kenneth M. Duberstein, a chief of staff for Mr. Reagan, said because Mr.
Fielding had been an aide to two presidents he would not be cowed by the
Oval Office or so charmed by the president that he would shy from giving
potentially unwelcome advice.
“Fred has an independence of judgment and independence of stature,” Mr.
Duberstein said. “He knows how to deliver tough news.”
All the same, Mr. Fielding is clearly being brought in to draw legal lines
in the sand.
“He brings enormous credibility to both sides, but he’s the president’s
counsel,” said Wayne Berman, a Republican lobbyist who is friendly with Mr.
Fielding and whose wife is the White House social secretary, Lea Berman.
“He’s not there to represent the views of the Congress.”