WASHINGTON -- President Clinton tapped a gray eminence of Washington's legal establishment yesterday to seal the White House off from any perception of meddling in the burgeoning Whitewater probe.
Lloyd N. Cutler was already influential, and his firm already prominent and prosperous, when President Jimmy Carter hired him as White House counsel in 1979 to improve ties with Washington power brokers.
Now 76, Mr. Cutler is, if anything, wiser in the ways of the capital as he takes over from Bernard W. Nussbaum, who was forced out Saturday as counsel to the Clinton White House.
Mr. Cutler said he will concentrate on "the procedures and actions necessary to maintain public confidence in the integrity and openness of the administration." Offering his first legal advice, he recommended that if Congress holds hearings on Whitewater, everyone in the White House cooperate.
His record suggests he will carve out a broad and influential role, steering the president and White House staff away from potential legal and political missteps. But the 130-day limited tenure he insisted on makes it unlikely that Mr. Cutler will shake up the close-knit group of longtime Clinton associates and campaign aides who still hold much of the power at the White House.
In the white-haired, bespectacled Mr. Cutler, Mr. Clinton has a blue-chip corporate lawyer with an unchallenged reputation for integrity, who commands high fees but has a strong record of pro-bono work. Mr. Cutler knows both the regulatory process and Congress and, despite close Democratic Party ties, holds bipartisan respect.
Rep. Jim Leach, the Iowa Republican who has been a leading critic of Mr. Clinton's handling of Whitewater, praised Mr. Cutler yesterday as "an impeccable choice."
Mr. Cutler's soft-spoken, courtly manner and strong political experience offer a stark contrast to Mr. Nussbaum, the hard-charging Wall Street takeover lawyer who brought an aggressive litigator's drive to protecting the president.
It was Mr. Nussbaum's inexperience in Washington, some believe, that led him to neglect the political consequences of White House actions and ultimately led to his forced resignation.
The office Mr. Cutler will lead handles a range of legal work, ranging from background probes into administration appointees and judicial nominations to presidential pardons. But the counsel himself looms larger.
"His real job is presiding over the busy traffic at the stop-go intersection of law and politics," said Leonard Garment, a Nixon White House counsel during the Watergate period. To be done right, the job requires "complete access" to the president and the right to "walk into every meeting."
The distinction between representing the office of the presidency, rather than the president personally, "is not one that's easily made," said Jody Powell, Mr. Carter's press secretary. Mr. Nussbaum drew criticism by appearing to be protecting Mr. Clinton from legal damage arising from actions while he was governor or Arkansas, long before reaching the White House.
Mr. Cutler sought to draw a clear line yesterday, saying he would serve as counsel "for the president in office and the office of the presidency."
"Most of the time these standards coincide. I don't think there's too much of a dichotomy," he said. But he added that "when it comes to private affairs, these should be handled by private counsel."
Born in New York and educated at Yale University and Yale Law School, Mr. Cutler has been practicing law here since 1946, interspersing legal work with a string of appointments to public and private commissions and boards and visiting professorships at Yale and Oxford. He formerly served on the board of the Baltimore Orioles.
Despite his law firm's heavy list of corporate clients, Mr. Cutler is frequently available when key public figures need his help.
In a classic Washington irony, he represented former Secretary of State James A. Baker III in a special prosecutor's probe into the State Department's search through Mr. Clinton's passport file during the 1992 presidential campaign.
Mr. Cutler's representation of another former secretary of state, George P. Shultz, in the Iran-contra special prosecutor's probe drew attention to his $370-an-hour fees.