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Bush turns to capital insider

An advisor to past presidents is chosen for White House counsel.

January 09, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Turning to a man described as "the truly quintessential Washington, D.C., inside lawyer," President Bush has chosen Fred F. Fielding as his White House counsel, a White House official said Monday.

Bush will be the third president whom Fielding has served in the counsel's office. As deputy counsel, he defended Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate investigation; as the chief White House attorney from 1981 to 1986, he directed Ronald Reagan's responses to smaller scandals.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the appointment had not been formally announced, said that Fielding, 67, would replace Harriet E. Miers, who submitted her resignation Thursday.

Fielding, who served on the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, is a partner in a Washington law firm, Wiley Rein & Fielding.

His appointment, which could be announced as early as today, is part of a White House personnel overhaul that began in April with the arrival of Joshua B. Bolten as chief of staff. In a White House in which few senior aides, and even fewer midlevel staff members, served in high-level posts in previous administrations, Fielding's arrival would represent a rare reliance on a Washington insider.

The counsel's office is likely to be particularly busy in coming months.

The new Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate have pledged to conduct vigorous oversight of administration policies and investigations of its actions -- with the possibility of issuing subpoenas.

"It's going to be a contentious time. There will be repeated demands for executive-branch witnesses to testify on Capitol Hill" and a push for internal documents, said Douglas W. Kmiec, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, who worked with Fielding during the Reagan administration. "Some of it is likely to be quite testy on Iraq and contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq."

Fielding will bring to the White House a resume nearly unmatched among Republicans in Washington: a history of dealing with congressional investigations and constitutional issues at the heart of the separation of powers of the executive and legislative branches, experience working with Democrats, and a reputation for delivering bad news to presidents in a straightforward manner.

"He knows how to deliver tough news. He is not cowed by the office of the presidency," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served as one of Reagan's chiefs of staff. "He doesn't get cotton in his mouth when he walks into the Oval Office."

As Reagan's White House counsel for five years, Fielding oversaw the administration's response to legal issues that snared then-Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan and to scandal at the Environmental Protection Agency.

He also was involved in the search that led to the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman on the Supreme Court. Among his young aides was John G. Roberts Jr., now chief justice of the United States.

As deputy White House counsel during Nixon's second term, he worked at first with John W. Dean III, constructing the initial responses to the Watergate investigation. For a time, he was believed to have been Deep Throat, a key source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (That mysterious figure was identified in May 2005 as W. Mark Felt of the FBI.)

Like many of his predecessors in the Oval Office, when Bush came to Washington he placed longtime associates, with whom he was comfortable, in particularly sensitive jobs.

And when problems arose, predecessors turned to Washington veterans.

The appointment recalls President Clinton's decision in 1994, during the initial investigations of the Whitewater land deal, to name Lloyd N. Cutler as special counsel. Cutler, a Democratic insider with decades of Washington experience, had served President Carter as White House counsel almost two decades earlier.

Bush's first two White House counsels -- Alberto R. Gonzales, now attorney general, and Miers -- were longtime loyalists who came with the president from Texas.

By selecting Fielding, said former Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr, "the president has gone inside -- he has chosen the truly quintessential Washington, D.C., inside lawyer."

"Fred has probably unparalleled experience. He's very well known for his great wisdom, common sense and very discerning judgment," said Starr, now dean of Pepperdine's law school, who as an independent counsel conducted the investigation that led to Clinton's impeachment in 1998.

The selection of Fielding was first reported Monday on Time magazine's website.

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com.

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