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When it comes to defending Hillary Clinton, Lanny Davis has no rival. After Clinton had been mathematically eliminated from contention for the Democratic nomination, Davis continued to campaign for her. After she conceded, he lobbied for a veep slot for her. And after Biden got the nod, he pushed to get her a choice speaking gig at the convention. Now he’s agitating for her because, well, he’s Lanny Davis. It’s what he does.
So what does Hillary Clinton’s greatest booster do at the convention at which she must concede her greatest defeat? To find out, I spent some time with him Tuesday, the day Hillary was slated to speak. I’m still not sure why he agreed to let me tag along. Here’s what happened.
6 a.m.—A town car driven by a man named Hamilton—more on him later—whisks Davis from the Brown Palace Hotel to the Pepsi Center. In the car, Davis calls his daughter to wish her a happy 40th birthday. I know this because he showed me his BlackBerry calendar.
7:15 a.m.—Davis’ first appearance of the day: America’s Newsroom on Fox. Davis joined Fox as a commentator in June, infuriating Democrats who said he was disloyal to work for a Republican network. For Davis, the choice was obvious: Fox, he says, had treated Hillary more fairly than any other network.
Davis inhabits a gray zone between official surrogate and independent pundit. He communicates daily with the Clinton camp, but he doesn’t hold an official position and doesn’t get paid. Everyone benefits: The campaign gets to broadcast a mostly on-message voice who can still claim independence. The networks get to interview an insider who knows the spin but doesn’t always go full-torque. And Davis gets to practice law at his firm, Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe, without the potential conflict of belonging to a campaign. (And, of course, Fox makes it worth his while.)
The question of the day: Can Hillary Clinton convince her fans to support Barack Obama? Davis’ answer: Hillary Clinton can open the door, but Barack Obama has to close it himself. He will repeat this mantra another 4,528 times today.
7:45-10 a.m.—Various radio appearances: Fox’s Strategy Room, WOR segment with Joan Hamburg, and Greg Allen’s show.
12 p.m.—Lunch with an “old friend.” I’m not invited. I will soon discover that half of the people in the Pepsi Center are old friends of Lanny’s.
1 p.m.—Work. Davis does have a real job. He heads up the “legal crisis communications” team at his law firm in Washington, D.C. Davis advocates something like radical honesty: “Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.” (If that sounds like a subtitle for a book, that’s because it is.) And not for moral reasons. It’s good politics. Better to put the embarrassing facts out there all at once than to have them trickle out. “Sometimes I’ll say to reporter, ‘You’re not asking me the right question. You need to ask me this question,’ ” Davis explains. “It’s counterintuitive—people think I’m crazy. But the fact is, it’s coming out anyway.”
2:30 p.m.—We notice the anti-Lanny himself, Dick Morris, in a booth for Sky News, the British network owned by News Corp. Davis pulls me aside. “This is the most hateful person to Hillary in the world,” he says. “I try to tell him it doesn’t help to hate so much—that it hurts his credibility—but he doesn’t listen.” Morris, as if aware of a disturbance in the Force, comes alive. “I thought I told you to be more positive,” Davis says, extending his hand. “Oh, I’m all pro-Hillary today,” Morris says. He laughs and ducks out. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” Davis explains.
During the segment, a producer asks me whether they can keep Lanny for one more quick hit. I explain that I don’t work for Lanny, I’m just following him around—but that, yes, I’m sure it would be fine.
2:55 p.m.—Hallway. “For me, politics is not personal.” Davis repeats this refrain constantly. But from what I see, the opposite is true. Politics is intensely personal for Davis. Everyone is a “good friend” or an “old friend,” to the extent that mere “friend” starts to sound like an insult. He delights in the flesh-pressing that so many politicians disdain. And he prizes loyalty above all else.
What he means by “politics is not personal” is that he doesn’t hold grudges. Davis will appear on television with anyone, he says, as long as they pass some minimal threshold of humanity. Laura Ingraham he can deal with. Dick Morris passes, barely. But he draws the line at Ann Coulter. (Not everyone feels the same way about Davis. More on that later.)
Lanny is explaining all this when his phone goes off. “David!” he exclaims. It’s David Brooks. “Did you get my email?”
3 p.m.—Lanny’s phone dies. This is bad for two reasons. That’s where he had the number for Hamilton, his driver, saved. It also means he now has only two methods of wireless communication—his pager and his BlackBerry.
Like many politicos of a certain age, Davis’ relationship with technology is a combination of dependency and bewilderment. I show him how to set his BlackBerry to vibrate. It starts buzzing immediately. Davis looks puzzled. “Hey, you know what?” he says after a moment. “This is buzzing from e-mails!”
3:20 p.m.—Hallway. Davis hands me his coffee and calls in to a radio interview with Michael Medved, a right-wing talk show host. Medved’s an old friend from Yale, much like Hillary Clinton (Davis met her in law school), Bill Clinton (met him after law school; worked in his administration), Joe Lieberman (worked on his first campaign; Lieberman held the pillow at his son’s bris), John Kerry (Davis thought he’d be president, even back then), George W. Bush (rushed his frat while Bush was prez), Greg Craig (no longer friends), and other people you may have heard of. Some people entertain paranoid fantasies about the media and political and business worlds being one big gentleman’s club. Now I know why.
4:22 p.m.—Hallway. To be Lanny Davis at the DNC is to be barraged by a steady stream of nods, smiles, waves, bear hugs, and teary thank-yous. “Why are they thanking me?” Davis wonders out loud. “It’s about loyalty. Maybe they had someone who abandoned them once.”
Others use Davis as a sort of unity-meter—a gauge of whether Clintonites will be supporting Obama. Davis’ prescription for Obama is a lot like what Davis tells his clients: He has to come clean. “He should acknowledge his dearth of knowledge and experience. And rather than his arguing, as he did in the primaries, that you don’t need experience … it’s better to say, You’re right, I do lack experience. He has implicitly said that [by picking] Joe Biden already.”
I don’t doubt Davis is serious. But as Lanny himself would say, I don’t question his motives—only his judgment.
4:50 p.m.—Hallway. We’re heading to the Fox News green room for a 6 o’clock O’Reilly appearance. Davis runs over his schedule in his head. “Six-thirty, Lars Larson. You gotta remind me.” Somehow, in the last few hours, I have become Lanny Davis’ personal assistant.
5:22 p.m.—Fox News green room. Laura Ingraham is getting her hair done. “You’re looking more beautiful than ever,” Lanny tells her. “You know how to make an old girl feel good,” she says. “Not at all!” he says. “You’re a very young girl.”
A minute later, Davis is regaling Juan Williams with a story about how when he grew up in New York, his father never let him be a Yankees fan. “They’re the Republicans of baseball,” he said. “They have all the money, and they win all the time.” This sends him into a long tale about the time he saw his hero Willie Mays play at the Polo Grounds in 1957. This story then becomes a story about how he told that story to Bill Clinton and Willie Mays himself at the White House, which, he says, left Clinton in tears. Which, of course, reminds him of the time President George W. Bush chatted with Davis’ son for 20 minutes in the Oval Office. “That reminds me,” Davis says, and pulls out of his wallet a photo of his son Josh printed on one of those Little League mock baseball cards. “Check this out.”
I know way too much about Lanny Davis.
5:38 p.m.—Davis is still waiting for makeup when Sen. Chuck Schumer enters the room, entourage in tow. “Lanny!” he says. “What are you doing here?” Davis explains that they’re going to be on O’Reilly together. Schumer’s smile vanishes. He turns to Amy Sohnen, a heretofore cheery Fox News executive producer. “Absolutely not,” Schumer says. Apparently there’s been a mix-up. Schumer thought he was going to be appearing alone. Davis, sensing trouble, drifts over to the food table.
The senator storms out of the office to make a phone call. Outside in the hall, his spokesman is soft-yelling into his cell. It’s unclear whether the objection is to Davis himself or appearing on-screen with someone of lesser stature than Schumer.
After a few minutes, Sohnen approaches Lanny. There’s been a terrible mistake, she explains, and they can’t have him on the show. “That’s not an option,” Davis says. He was the original guest, and he gave his permission for Schumer to join him. “I’m sorry. Unless Roger Ailes calls me personally, I’m doing the show.”
6 p.m.—Set of The O’Reilly Factor. Schumer and Davis sit down with Bill O’Reilly at a table overlooking the convention floor. Apparently O’Reilly has been briefed on Schumer’s tiff. “No one tells me what to do either, and I’m the star,” O’Reilly says. “Now, siddown.” They agree Schumer will speak first, and that he and Davis won’t appear on-screen together.
At one point during the interview, Davis pointedly refers to “great Democrats like Chuck Schumer.” Schumer doesn’t return the compliment.
6:24 p.m.—I’ve lost Lanny. After the O’Reilly segment ended, he bolted for the bathroom. He says later he was pretty sure Schumer turned to shake his hand, but Davis walked away before he could. In Lanny’s absence, the Fox producer pulls me aside. “Tell Lanny thank you,” she says. I promise to pass along the message.
6:30 p.m.—I’ve found Lanny. He’s standing at a railing, dialing into the show of Lars Larson, an Oregon radio host Davis describes as “right of Attila the Hun.” I ask him about l’affaire Schumer. “It wasn’t about me—I could have been anyone,” he says. “It was about Chuck Schumer.”
6:51 p.m.—Next person he calls is his eldest son Seth. Lanny insists I speak with him. Seth is sort of an alternate universe Lanny—gregarious and talkative but pro-Obama. (He talks about Hillary in the same polite way his father talks about Obama—she has a “great personality.”) He’s also a journalist—Seth writes for Sports Illustrated and is also an analyst for CBS’s NCAA coverage—whereas his father is a journalist manqué: As a student, he was chairman of the Yale Daily News.
7:28 p.m.—The hall. With the keynote speech about to begin, Davis finds us a couple of seats in the section reserved for “honorary guests.” It’s getting late, and he is now desperately trying to get Hamilton’s number. He calls the car service several times, getting more agitated when they put him on hold. People sitting nearby are staring. Finally, he gets an answer. “Can you write this number down?” he asks me.
When he gets off the phone, Mark Warner is finishing up his speech. “This might be the worst keynote speech in the history of the Democratic Party,” Davis observes.
8:25 p.m.—It’s Hillary time. As the intro video starts to play, Davis inches forward in his seat. The audience is roaring. “This is not going to sit well with the Obama people,” he says. “It’s like a commercial for Hillary.”
During a montage of Hillary’s famous laugh, Davis tells me it’s really the most joyous thing about her—always has been. When one of Hillary’s friends jokes, “We don’t want her to sing—ever,” Davis bursts out laughing and claps. He takes off his glasses, puts his face in his hands. “I get all sobby.”
8:30 p.m.—Hillary comes onstage. From where we’re sitting, the podium is just out of view. We walk over and stand in the aisle, in violation of the fire code. A DNC volunteer asks us to move. A few bystanders, seeing the commotion, decide to intervene. “He’s a very important man,” one of them explains.
Eventually the DNC guy retreats. Lanny Davis can stay. His people, Hillary’s people, have spoken. He soon spots a friend in a nearby skybox and we watch the rest of her speech from there. Davis knew what she was going to say, but even so, once again, he gets emotional. I don’t blame him. If you squint a little, it almost looks like a victory speech.