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The Sharp Shooter : Love him or hate him, Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. is shaking up Washington. His take-no-prisoners style makes him the consummate outsider on the inside.

August 12, 1994|JEANNE WRIGHT / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. might just be the hippest policy wonk ever to don a pair of wingtips.

When he's not at work as the powerful, even feared, staff di rector of the influential Senate Finance Committee, he's roaring through Washington on his Harley Davidson. On weekends he heads home to Manhattan to be with his movie-star wife and infant daughter.

He is pals with entertainment industry creatures of every stripe, from moguls to writers. He has appeared on "Saturday Night Live," and other TV producers lust after him. Cristophe (who else?) has cut his hair. And he savors his standing as a Capitol Hill outsider, shaking things up, picking up some enemies but no regrets--a short-timer dropping by in devoted service to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.)

O'Donnell's days as staff director for the Finance Committee are long and hectic. It's not uncommon for him to work 18-hour days--assisting Moynihan on the Senate floor and meeting with other senators and their staffs. He spends hours fielding telephone calls from everyone from White House advisers to the media to consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Back-to-back meetings getting an earful from lobbyists, barking out orders to staffers and lining up votes are all part of a day's work.

Loved and loathed, respected and feared, he shatters the stereotype of your typical Senate staffer--especially one who has the task of ushering through committee such weighty legislation as health care and welfare reform, the budget and NAFTA.

Said White House adviser George Stephanopoulos, who has worked closely with O'Donnell on major issues: "How many staff directors drive motorcycles and commute to New York to write screenplays?"

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On Valentine's Day this year, O'Donnell and Kathryn Harrold stopped in Las Vegas on their way to Los Angeles, where they have a home, and got married in a quickie ceremony.

She was about five months pregnant, and Capitol Hill's irony mavens noted with relish that O'Donnell's boss has long made an issue of the problem of children born out of wedlock. Although some joked that an embarrassed Moynihan had pressured his committee staff director to get married, O'Donnell denied that it was ever an issue. Moynihan agreed: "I wouldn't dream of it. They were an old married couple when I met them."

To those who admire O'Donnell--whose sarcasm and wit endeared him to his colleagues at the Harvard Lampoon--he is a flash of brilliance and creativity, a diamond among Washington's ranks of drab bureaucrats.

"He's the luckiest man I know because he's married to Kathryn Harrold, he's maybe the smartest man and he sure as hell is the toughest," Moynihan said.

"When you meet someone like him in Washington, it's refreshing," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) "He's a pragmatist. He doesn't have much patience for wasted words. God, that's a relief."

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, called O'Donnell "a Renaissance man. He's a unique . . . and dashing fellow. One thing he is not, is dull."

But to those who disdain O'Donnell, a 42-year-old native of Boston, he is imperious, egotistical, foul-mouthed and Machiavellian. "He has an ego as big as a senator," said someone from the White House who has dealt with O'Donnell. This person, like all of O'Donnell's critics, insisted on anonymity.

O'Donnell said he couldn't care less about what people think of him. "I don't for one second spend any time thinking about carefully ingratiating myself with someone for the future."

He said he came to Washington to work for Moynihan, chairman of the Finance Committee, because of his admiration and respect for the New York Democrat. When he finally gives it up, O'Donnell said he'll have no desire to stick around. "There is no other thing in Washington I can imagine interesting me. So, I'll leave with whatever enemies I pick up. . . . And I will ask Washington for no favors when I'm gone."

"When they say he's arrogant, I suppose they are referring to his capacity for telling people to go to hell," said O'Donnell's father, Lawrence Sr., a 73-year-old Boston lawyer.

"I like pointing my finger in the face of the king, as they say," he added. "He's like that, too. He's not on a hero-worship kick. I would be disappointed if people weren't taking shots at him. It means he's shaking things up."

Since coming to Washington in 1992, O'Donnell has become a frequent guest on the PBS talk show "Charlie Rose." True to his rogue image, he recently appeared on the program unshaven, wearing a denim shirt, looking as if he'd just roared in on his chopper.

Last year, he turned down an offer by Fox to anchor a news program in Los Angeles. "I was fascinated by the offer. . . . I can't make a million dollars in the Senate," he said with a laugh. "I was interested but it came a year too early."

Now, John Bowman, executive producer of "Murphy Brown," wants O'Donnell, Moynihan and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to appear as guests on the show, although none has yet agreed to do so.

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