“I love chess,” Lanny J. Davis said over lunch. “I love a challenge.”
Davis, the nation’s go-to crisis manager, looks nothing like television’s version of a scandal eraser.
He doesn’t have the pouty lips of Kerry Washington (“Scandal”), nor is he as perfectly nasty as Don Cheadle in “House of Lies.”
Davis is all crinkly eyes and earnestness that belie the nerves of steel he must have to do his job.
He rose to prominence in the late 1990s when the White House hired him. Davis was brought on to give to his former Yale Law School friend Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, Bill, a needed assist.
At the time, it seemed as if the Clintons couldn’t breathe without kicking up a hellfire storm of public scandal and intrigue.
Davis gave the White House the same advice he’s given all of his clients, from Martha Stewart to ex-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to Royal Caribbean Cruises: “Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.”
Davis’ latest book is a tell-all of sorts.
“Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life” lays out a condensed version of his strategy for weathering crises.
When the reader strips down the strategic legal maneuverings or the media manipulation, the heart of Davis’ strategy boils down to this: Be transparent, be humble, be proactive and be empathetic to the people you’ve hurt.
If that’s not enough to keep Washington reading, Davis has laced the medicine with some sugar, weaving his tough-love strategies with stories about his personal experience cleaning up after a seemingly endless parade of A-list clients.
With the Clinton White House mired in one scandal after another, Davis came on board to wipe up the first family’s messes.
“Late one night I found a document . . . that had already been delivered to a Republican investigative committee,” Davis recalled. “And it said, ‘You should invite the following people to stay overnight in the Lincoln bedroom to, quote, ‘energize’ them. For $50,000 apiece.”
The sheet of paper was crowned with President Clinton’s own chicken scratch scrawl and his signature- reversed check mark.
Get All the Facts Out
“I knew it was him. It was late at night, after midnight, we were looking at a box of documents we knew was going to the Republicans. I look at this document, I see his handwriting at the top of the page. It says ‘100K, 50K’ . . . that’s how they raise money to get re-elected.”
“It’s a huge story,” Davis continued. “So what do you do? If I’m a lawyer, nothing. Hope they don’t ask me. What I did is I called an Associated Press reporter. I said, ‘Come on over tomorrow morning. I have something I need to leak to you. We’re going to have to set up ground rules.’”
The ground rules were to give Davis and his team time to amass all the facts he could find, including how many people other presidents had invited for overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom and whether they were big donors. In other words, he said, it’s important to take time to gather facts to put the scandal in context.
“I gave [the reporter] the whole story. He published the entire Lincoln bedroom story in the Associated Press. It went out across the whole country. It was a terrible story,” he said. “But it was over by the time Fred Thompson, Sen. Thompson, held his hearing. I was out in the hallway handing out the story, that was written months before, to everyone, saying, ‘This is old news.’”
His strategy is to get all the facts of a crisis out, good and bad. He respects the press, he says, and works with reporters to get out a story, whatever the subject might be.
The Human Element
His business, Davis says, is to unearth and manage the “human dimension of a crisis.” The paradox of the book, of course, is that in order to make a crisis go away quickly and forever, there has to be near-total honesty with the public and complete trust among Davis, his clients and the media.
In a Washington in which the politicians are increasingly opaque and the press is increasingly distrustful, Davis’ policy of forcing his clients to work with media feels like a renegade move. He does have a line he won’t cross, however. He says he would never “give a fact to a reporter that can put a person in jail.”
Say what you will about Davis, and Lord knows people do, the man can manage the hell out of a crisis.
In fact, ex-embattled President Bill Clinton and ex-embattled first lady, New York senator and secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton aren’t just two former clients. They are, perhaps, the two most popular politicians in the world.