The appointment of Washington lawyer-lobbyist Lloyd N. Cutler as White House counsel reveals the extent to which Jimmy Carter is inviting corporate power into his inner circle. From a candidate who in 1976 said he hoped to become the leading consumer champion, Carter has turned to Cutler who has long represented the archetype anti-consumer position as a strategist for the automobile, drug and many other industries.
White House sources say that for weeks Cutler has criticized the inadequate quality of Carter’s staff. This low regard was directed as well at his predecessor, Robert J. Lipshutz. Clearly, however, the veteran Washington lawyer is not giving up a lucrative law practice merely to improve the technical quality of the office of White House counsel alone. Cutler aims to be a major influence with Carter and no one who knows him could doubt that Cutler has any less ambitious goal in mind.
Carter’s present tight circle of advisers are not ready for Cutler’s drive and confidence. One White House aide told me that Cutler cannot achieve major influence with Carter. “His staff will be tiny,” he said. Traditionally, the job of White House counsel has not been given much range.
But Carter is in political trouble and his impact on Congress is not substantial. As outgoing Attorney General Griffin Bell said, Carter must come closer to the Establishment. Hamilton Jordan and Stewart Eizenstat hardly are going to be of much help in these areas.
Enter Cutler, self-assured and experienced in the ways of advising men of power who find themselves in difficult straits. A friend of many big-business executives and top Carter appointees, including Cyrus Vance, secretary of state, and Harold Brown, secretary of defense, Cutler is well-positioned with or without staff, as long as he can have ready access to Jimmy Carter. Who needs staff when you are a confidant of people like James Reston of the New York Times?
Fortunately, the senior partner of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering has a record of what he is for and against. During an interview for the book, “The Other Government,” by my associate, Mark Green, Cutler said, “There is one point I want to make clear: We believe in the arguments that we make.”
In 1962, Cutler was a major force in weakening the proposed Kefauver drug safety amendments following disclosure of the thalidomide tragedy.
In 1966, Cutler, on behalf of the auto companies, successfully lobbied Congress to delete criminal penalties for willful and knowing violation of the auto safety laws. This set a precedent for other industries demanding and receiving from Congress similar exemptions.
More recently, Cutler has advocated a presidential veto power over regulatory agency decisions and has pushed a major synthetic fuels program with heavy government subsidies.
Cutler uses old friends in government efficiently. His friendship with Antitrust Chief Donald Turner expanded the firm’s antitrust business in the 1960s, Corporations knew and appreciated his direct access to Lyndon Johnson’s antitrust enforcer. One of Cutler’s later victories was to negotiate an abominably toothless consent decree in the auto smog conspiracy case following a justice department anti-monopoly suit against the automobile manufacturers in January 1969.
“Lloyd Cutler is a strange man,” said Joe Laitin, then working with the Office of Management and Budget and now with the Treasury Department: “On the one hand he’s a corporate devil and on the other hand he’s a 1930s liberal.” A few years ago, Cutler described himself as “left of center and a believer in social change.” He is proud of his advocacy of civil rights.
But the 62-year-old lawyer has felt unfulfilled, despite his professional power and affluence. Becoming an important broker and negotiator between Carter and powerful business groups must excite this outwardly taciturn man. But this role will turn off many consumer, neighborhood, labor and environmental groups who see Cutler as the symbol of what they had hoped Carter was running against in his campaign.
In a conversation I had with candidate Carter three years ago, I had occasion to mention the need for a progressive politician who would stand up to the forces represented by Washington lawyers like Lloyd Cutler. At the time, Carter didn’t seem to recognize the name. How times have changed.