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A Hard-Nosed Litigator Becomes Bush's Policy Point Man

Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Company and The Washington Post


As a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis, Jay Lefkowitz had a mini-specialty in representing feuding family members as they sued their relatives. This should put him in good stead in his new job brokering deals with the most dysfunctional family of all: Congress.

As the new head of the White House's Domestic Policy Council, Lefkowitz, 39, is coordinating President Bush's policies on everything from cloning to conservation. Given the environment the administration is in -- sparring with increasingly emboldened Senate Democrats as midterm elections approach -- Bush is likely to be in need of some hard-nosed bargaining.

At Kirkland, Lefkowitz was often called upon to argue for "writs of mandamus," a low-probability effort to persuade an appellate court to interfere with a lower court even before there was a ruling. "He's the kind of guy you'd put on a low-percentage case and let him work his wonders," said Thomas Yannucci, the firm's managing partner. "I don't remember him losing any."

When Lefkowitz represented General Motors Corp. a couple of years ago, the car company's executives called him "Viper" because of his unrelenting style. "Now he's the president's Viper," said Paul Cappuccio, a former law partner of Lefkowitz's who is now general counsel for AOL Time Warner Inc.

The president doesn't call him Viper; his Bush-given nickname is "Lefty." But Lefkowitz is the first to say he's an unusual choice for a policy guy. "I'm a litigator," he said.

Lefkowitz's predecessor, John Bridgeland, is a calm consensus builder who shepherded Bush's "compassionate conservative" campaign agenda into legislative language and, often, law. While Bridgeland, who now runs Bush's pet project, the national service initiative, has establishment credentials, Lefkowitz has enjoyed ideological combat, writing for neoconservative journals such as Commentary and the Public Interest and founding the Dark Ages convention, conservatives' answer to Bill Clinton's Renaissance Weekends.

Both Bridgeland and Lefkowitz say their different styles had nothing to do with their job changes, but the shift fits well with the White House's move beyond the campaign-generated first-year initiatives such as education reform, tax cuts and help for religious charities. Lefkowitz is also the first of Bush's senior policy advisers who did not work on the presidential campaign.

Lefkowitz, friends and colleagues say, is the quintessential nerd. The bespectacled Columbia University graduate has a baby face. His West Wing office contains a little-used tennis racket, a copy of Commentary on the table and a framed picture of drawings of stem cells.

"He's proud to be a geek," said conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, who started the Dark Ages convention with him.

Lefkowitz, who as general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget last year was the architect of Bush's decision on stem-cell research, is attracted to controversial issues. As a junior staffer in the first Bush administration, he encouraged Vice President Dan Quayle's speech criticizing "Murphy Brown" for celebrating single motherhood and worked on an executive order restricting labor unions' power. In 1993, he joined a think tank project with Quayle's former chief of staff, William Kristol, before becoming a partner at Kirkland, Kenneth W. Starr's law firm. There, he represented Florida and Wisconsin in defense of their private-school voucher programs.

At OMB, Lefkowitz had a hand in every high-profile regulatory matter, from offshore drilling to airline loans. When the Salvation Army was looking to be exempted from state and local laws barring hiring discrimination against homosexuals, Bush adviser Karl Rove sent the matter to Lefkowitz (no can do, Lefkowitz said).

In his new job, Lefkowitz has a full assortment of emotional issues, including Bush's recent positions on cloning and a crime victims' rights amendment, counterterrorism efforts in immigration and transportation, and Bush's proposals to emphasize abstinence and marriage in federal welfare policy.

Along the way, Lefkowitz has become Bush's de facto in-house ethicist and a primary liaison to Christian conservatives -- a seemingly odd role for someone of the Jewish faith. Lefkowitz, the son of New York-born Zionist parents who taught him Hebrew as his first language, keeps Kosher, has a well-thumbed Hebrew language Bible in his office and took a bicycle to work to avoid driving during Passover. Lefkowitz hopes to convince fellow Jews to embrace Republicans. In a 1996 speech, he said the Jewish community is "disintegrating," in part because of its "embrace of the assimilationist ideal endorsed by the liberal Democratic Party."

Conservatives hope his presence will keep Bush focused on domestic priorities of the GOP base; the lack of such focus was a mistake made by the president's father. Lefkowitz's titular boss is Margaret La Montagne Spellings, a longtime Bush aide, but Lefkowitz coordinates policymaking and gets an audience with the president about twice weekly, aides said.

Still, conservatives expecting a flurry of conservative brainstorming may be disappointed by Lefkowitz.

"He doesn't sit there all night and dream up new ideas," former partner Cappuccio said. "George W. strikes me as the type not to make mistakes, and Jay is the guy you'd like to have around you if you're trying not to make mistakes."

If so, what was good for General Motors may be good for Bush.

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