WASHINGTON -- Robert E. Lighthizer often stands at the window of his 11th-floor New York Avenue office with binoculars, peering down at President Clinton practicing chip shots on the South Lawn of the White House.
This surveillance is really just a hobby for Lighthizer, who shares Clinton's passion for golf. But considering the intimacy of Lighthizer's relationship with Republican presidential challenger Bob Dole, the Democrats might well regard it as opposition research.
Top policy adviser, leading fund-raiser, campaign treasurer, and all-around trouble-shooter, Lighthizer is a big star in a small constellation of sometime staffers and long-time friends who make Dole's inner circle. And he hasn't even been on the Dole payroll for more than a decade.
"Working for Dole is like being a priest," says Lighthizer, 48, who first met the candidate in 1978 when Dole was the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and hired Lighthizer as his staff director. "You can never leave. You've got the job for life. I've been pretty much dedicated to him for 18 years."
In fact, if Clinton wanted a deeper insight into his Republican challenger, he might well get his own binoculars and train them on Lighthizer, a trade lobbyist whose brother, James, is a prominent Maryland Democrat.
"He's a lot like Dole, only a younger version," says Thomas A. Scully, a health care lobbyist and former Bush administration official. "He's very organized, very determined, very driven, very focused. He and Dole have similar personalities. He's got Dole in the blood."
Like Dole, Lighthizer is so immersed in the mix of politics and policy that it permeates his home life.
"Six days a week we talk politics at my house: tax policy, foreign policy, history," he says of his family, which includes his wife and two teen-agers. His 19-year-old son, Robert Jr., is going to be a "computer guy" at the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
Also like Dole, Lighthizer is an exercise enthusiast who is fussy about his health.
"He's incredibly disciplined," says his brother, who served as Anne Arundel County executive and Maryland transportation secretary. "He'll have a bowl of consomme for lunch and cereal for dinner on some goofy 200-calorie-a day diet. He'll run until he pulls a tendon and play golf until his ankles hurt."
Lighthizer is also a daredevil who has done "a lot of crazy stuff," his brother says. Like racing a red Porsche.
"We're both Type A personalities, but he's more intense than I am," says Jim Lighthizer, who is 18 months older. "I can stay up until 5 a.m., but I can't get up at 5 a.m. like he does."
Bob Lighthizer also tends to be moodier than his brother, sometimes even downright grumpy. But, as with Dole, his dark moments are balanced by a dry wit and engaging personality.
Doubtless many or all of these qualities strike some chord in Dole, who includes Lighthizer among about half-dozen of his closest confidants. But there's also the crucial element of trust.
"He's very bright, utterly and absolutely loyal, and always been ready to do whatever he's asked," says Sheila Burke, another member of the inner circle who succeeded Lighthizer as Dole's top aide in the Senate. "He's also very straightforward with Dole, very honest."
What's more, he does his best to respect Dole's desire that his advisers stay out of the limelight. The former senator made a joke out of it.
"We've been friends all these years," Dole said in an interview Friday aboard his campaign plane. "I supported him to be assistant [U.S.] trade rep. But I never did get used to calling him 'Ambassador Lighthizer.' I said, 'Let's forgo that. I'll just call him Bob.' "
The Lighthizer brothers grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio, and gravitated separately to Washington. Bob came first, to attend Georgetown University, and stayed on at Georgetown Law School.
Jim says he decided at 14 to someday seek elective office, and became a Democrat when he settled in Maryland. Bob says he thought of himself as a Republican before he met Dole but hadn't planned a career in politics.
Dole and Lighthizer were brought together by the candidate's wife, Elizabeth, who recruited him for the staff director job through an acquaintance at the law firm of Covington and Burling, where Lighthizer went to work after law school.
"I was probably the only conservative in the firm; that's why they recommended me," he quipped.
Within a month, Lighthizer hired as deputy staff director his best friend, Roderick A. De-Arment, an associate at Covington and Burling whom he met while studying for the bar exam.
DeArment, who returned to the law firm after serving as Finance Committee staff director, also remains part of the Dole inner circle, along with New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici, former New Hampshire Sen. Warren B. Rudman and former Kansas Rep. Robert F. Ellsworth.
Lighthizer's heyday on the Senate staff spanned 1981 to 1983, while Dole was chairman of the Finance Committee. He helped craft and enact the Reagan tax cuts of 1981, and the tax increase of 1982 that was required to restore lost revenue when spending cuts didn't materialize.
Lighthizer was hired away in 1984 by then U.S. Trade Representative Bill Brock, who named him deputy trade representative. By the next year, Lighthizer was back working his old contacts at the Senate Finance Committee as a lobbyist with the firm of Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, where he's still based.
To be labeled a top adviser to Dole may seem a dubious distinction at a time when the campaign has been buffeted by missteps on issues such as smoking, gun control and abortion, as well as Dole's controversial decision to pass up the NAACP convention.
"I have not worked on those issues," Lighthizer says. "We each contribute in the ways we're best suited. My issues are the economy, trade and taxes. General organization is also something I can do uniquely because I've been around for so many years."
His chief assignment for the Dole campaign is coordinating 25 volunteer groups that are developing policy positions for a Dole administration. The most eagerly watched is the group helping the candidate fashion a tax-cut proposal, which he is expected to announce soon.
"I happen to think the most important issue is the economy, the fact that wages are down, and financial security is down," Lighthizer explained. "The top 5 percent of people are doing well, the bottom two-thirds are doing poorly. I think you have to stimulate the economy to get people an increase in wages."
As a trade lobbyist, Lighthizer uses his connections to win protection from foreign competition for his clients, such as the U.S. steel industry. His self-proclaimed "trade hawk" philosophy makes some free-traders nervous, particularly as Lighthizer's name is bandied about as a possible White House chief of staff in a Dole administration.
But most in the business community would welcome such an appointment, says Lonnie Taylor, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"He is exceptionally bright," says Taylor, who recently heard Lighthizer dominate a tax-cut discussion involving leading economists. "His command of the issues is breathtaking, not just taxes and trade but the whole gamut. We know no one is going to be with us 100 percent."
Lighthizer discourages the notion that he is a candidate for a White House job, but says he would help Dole hire others.
"I would concentrate on trying to get the right people into the right places," Lighthizer says. "If I thought I was just in this for myself, it would constrain me."
Others are quick to note that Lighthizer, who is rumored to earn well in excess of $500,000 a year, would have to take a huge pay cut to work for the White House -- and be required by law to refrain from lobbying for five years after he left.
That's a pretty hefty green fee -- even for the South Lawn.
Pub Date: 7/26/96