WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Bob Barnett, the lawyer who staged the publicity onslaught for Bill Clinton's memoir, is so media-savvy that as soon as a reporter enters his suite at the law firm of Williams & Connolly he imposes a caveat.
"The office," he says, "is off the record."
Not what is said in the office, but the physical space itself. Barnett is familiar with those newspaper profiles that use descriptions of mementos and photographs in an attempt to reveal more of the subject, and he's having none of it. If anyone is going to speak for Barnett, it'll be the lawyer himself.
It is an attention to detail that fits this Washington counselor best known for his ever-present legal pad and rapid-fire questions. These were his tools when he brokered the record-breaking advance for My Life - reportedly more than $10 million from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf - and arranged the memoir's promotional blitz on which the former president currently is embarked. The tour, which later heads abroad after stops in 16 U.S. cities, brings Clinton back to Washington today, for a signing at Politics & Prose in northwest Washington followed by one tomorrow at a downtown Barnes & Noble.
The Clinton memoir is pro- jected to hit No. 1 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list this Sunday. For Barnett, it is the culmination of a process that began four years ago when he and Clinton held a secret meeting with his publisher and editor in a Miami hotel.
"A meetiing that was supposed to last a half hour lasted three hours and everybody bonded, Barnett says. "And we decided to make the deal."
All in the family
This is Clinton Inc., and Barnett is one of its top deal makers. The 57-year-old lawyer has negotiated publishing deals for the whole Clinton family - even the pets. He brokered a reported $8 million book deal for former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, coordinating the publicity rollout for the New York Democratic senator's own best-selling memoir, Living History. He hammered out the terms of Chelsea Clinton's first-ever magazine piece, a personal reflection on 9/11 in the defunct Talk magazine. Barnett even negotiated the book deal for Dear Socks, Dear Buddy, the story of the Clintons' cat and dog penned by the former first lady. Barnett has, literally, represented everybody and their mother: He brokered a book deal for Clinton's mom, the late Virginia Kelley.
But it's not just the Clintons that comprise his business. On a recent afternoon, the lawyer gazes through owlish horn-rims at his bookshelves and rattles off the names of the clients whose work he keeps stacked there. Though he can sound like a soft-spoken Midwesterner - he is a native of Waukegan, Ill. - when this lawyer talks about the power players who have sought his $750-an-hour advice, his voice reflects D.C. ambition and success at its purest pitch.
"There's Cokie Roberts' book which is on the best-seller list," he says, staring at the client bookshelves, "Neil Cavuto which is on the best-seller list, Bob Woodward which is on the best-seller list, Bill Clinton which will soon be on the best-seller list, Hillary Clinton's paperback which is on the list, Mary Matalin which just came off the list, Karen Hughes which just came off the list, Tim Russert which is going to be on the list. And those are just the current ones."
Though Barnett has negotiated book deals for politicians, athletes, actors, celebrities - a group so diverse it spans from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Greek music sensation Yanni - he finds it more noteworthy that he can represent Democrats and Republicans. Among his points of pride: books by both vice presidential spouse Lynne Cheney and former first lady Clinton, which he considers proof of his bipartisan credentials.
Barnett has advised several Democratic presidential campaigns - often playing the role of Republican rivals to help the candidates prepare for debates - but the GOP clients hire him because he knows how to get the big deals.
"We literally have the life we have today because of Bob Barnett," Republican strategist Matalin says of the books, TV deals, radio shows and speaking engagements Barnett helped broker. The latest contract made Matalin one of the celebrity voices delivering the safety instructions before takeoff on the new budget airline, Independence Air.
Though he is neither a literary agent nor a New Yorker, he has finessed the New York publishing world. His tools: top-flight media contacts, an instinct for damage control and a knack for generating loads of good publicity.
"If God were writing the Bible again, He would surely call Bob Barnett to broker the deal," says Philippe Reines, a Senate spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, whose 2003 book now boasts 2.3 million in print.
Books by political personalities aren't always written to be read, exactly. Barnett's clients often are writing as much to preserve their legacy or revive their career or change their image as they are to tell a story. Former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos tried to establish an identity independent from the Clintons with All Too Human, and Cheney, known for conservative cultural activism, invoked a softer image with two patriotic books for children.
"The thing about a book is, you have total control," Barnett says. "With a book, you state your case - it is your case and your words. People can then talk about it, criticize it, rebut it, but at least you'll get your side on the record."
Barnett uses political strategies to promote books. He once hired a political demographer to poll for receptive audiences for a new, conservative author. The book tour went to small southern cities and, Barnett says, the sales shot up.
In the slightly incestuous Washington world, Barnett's clients are often reporters who cover his other clients who are politicians. He tailors each deal to fit their individual needs.
"The thing about Bob that is so special is he understands who his client is and what the most important thing to you is," says Roberts, the ABC comentator whose latest book is Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.
"He'll say sit down and make a list of the things you want to do and the things you don't want to do," she says.
The books actually are Barnett's sideline. The bulk of his time is spent on corporate litigation for clients such as McDonald's Corp., General Electric and Deutsche Bank. He also helps former government officials negotiate jobs in the private sector and brokers TV contracts for top correspondents, including his wife, Rita Braver of CBS.
Barnett is a multi-tasker who says he does most of his reading while watching TV and power-walking on his treadmill.
"My only serious exercise is mood swings," he says.
When asked what he reads for fun, he replies, "My clients."
Barnett has witnessed many of the Clintons' ups and downs. He was called to testify before a Senate subcommittee and a grand jury over the handling of files belonging to Vincent Foster, the White House deputy counsel who killed himself in 1993. In Living History, the former first lady describes Barnett trying to get her to accept the possibility that her husband might indeed have had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He recused himself from the Clintons' legal affairs during the first term after his wife was assigned to cover the White House.
Today, as Clinton's adviser in the post-presidential job market, his skills are measured as much in which offers never draw attention as which ones do. Hundreds of companies have asked to get Clinton to pitch their products on TV, for example, but the bad ideas died with Barnett and are buried in three file drawers in his office.
"These are offers for every kind of thing you could imagine," he says. "But I can't say what."
Barnett keeps his clients this way, by offering and revoking great gossip at the same time. One can only imagine what the discreet consigliere wouldn't say if he ever signed his two fantasy clients - Queen Elizabeth II and Barbra Streisand.
"People wouldn't come to me," he says, "if they thought they couldn't trust me."
What: Bill Clinton signing copies of his memoir, My Life, in Washington
When: 12:30 today at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. N.W.
Admission: All tickets, which are required for entry, have already been distributed.
When: 4 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Barnes & Noble, 555 12th St. N.W.
Admission: 1,000 wristbands will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 8 a.m. Wristband-wearers must then get in line at the store, no later than noon.