In the 2007 edition of Washington D.C. Super Lawyers Magazine, Robert Barnett, the master negotiator and dealmaker of Williams & Connolly, talked about how he closed some of the biggest book deals in publishing and served candidates in seven presidential campaigns.
Barnett was offered a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Byron White. Barnett was a regular in the notoriously rough pickup basketball games that White, an all-American football player, organized in the Supreme Court gym. Barnett suffered a broken hand, a broken foot and many minor injuries in that game, but he won’t say how many White inflicted. “That shall never be spoken about,” he says.
After the Supreme Court, Barnett “wanted to do something political.” A lifelong Democrat, he took a job as an aide to Sen. Walter Mondale. When Jimmy Carter chose Mondale as his running mate in 1976, Barnett took a leave of absence to work on the campaign. He discovered a talent for what has since become his specialty in politics: preparing candidates for debates. He has worked on seven Democratic presidential and vice presidential campaigns.
“I think the presidential debates are the purest intersection of politics, policy and media, all of which I enjoy,” he says.
Barnett usually takes the role of the Republican in practice debates. He was George H. W. Bush in 1984, 1988 and 1992. He has debated against Bill Clinton in more than 20 practice sessions. He portrayed Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004. “The goal is to have your candidate hearing nothing at the debate that they haven’t heard from you,” he says.
Barnett is matter-of-fact when asked if he gets bitter when one of his candidates loses. “Nah, that’s the nature of the system,” he says. “Somebody wins and somebody loses.” And in Barnett’s world, everybody ends up friends-and clients. He was the Clintons’ personal lawyer for a time and handled their big book deals. Dole is a client, and so are Lynne and Mary Cheney. Barnett socializes often with all of them, and says he and Cheney have “had a few laughs” over his portrayal of the vice president.