Robert Barnett '71: A Powerful Influence in Politics, Media, and Culture

Appeared in Record issue: 
Fall 2013

Of Robert Barnett, ’71, a Washington Post reporter recently wrote, “To list Barnett as a signifier of Washington connectedness is like calling the sun a symbol of heat.” Barnett’s client list includes Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Karl Rove, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Barbra Streisand, George Will, Bob Woodward, Prince Charles, Shania Twain, Andrea Mitchell, and Tony Blair.

He has assisted those people in a variety of capacities: some as an author’s representative, some in employment negotiations, some as a career advisor and facilitator, and many of them in more than one of those roles. He is not an agent; he takes no percentage of his clients’ earnings but instead charges them an hourly rate as clients of the firm where he has worked since 1975, Williams & Connolly.

Political consultant Mary Matalin has said of him, “He’s like a one-man vertical and horizontal operation for all things at the nexus of politics and culture and media.”

Entertainment Weekly has cited him as one of the hundred most powerful people in the entertainment industry. When Washingtonian magazine named DC’s top lawyers, Barnett was the first one mentioned. Although his client list is wholly bipartisan, Barnett does not hide his own political affiliation. He has worked on nine Democratic presidential campaigns since 1976, holding important advisory positions and also helping candidates with debate preparation by playing the role of their debate opponent. In 1984, 1988, and 1992, he stood in for George H. W. Bush; in 2000 and 2004 he was Richard Cheney. He held more that 20 practice debates with Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign, and he helped Hillary Clinton prepare for debates during her senatorial and presidential-primary runs.

Barnett acknowledges that his well-known clients and activities give him a high profile, but he says they constitute only a small part of his overall practice. “Most of my time has been spent representing, and now mostly supervising the representation of, corporate clients in a wide range of matters: deal-making, litigation, government relations, crisis management, media relations—all the usual things that lawyers do,” he says.

“For most of my younger life I thought I was going to become a high school English teacher,” Barnett recalls, “and even when I came to the Law School I had no clear vision of what I wanted to do. But when you are taught by giants—like Soia Mentschikoff, Harry Kalven, Bernie Meltzer, Walter Blum, Grant Gilmore, Phil Neal, and so many others—and you have classmates who are very smart and very interesting, you’re going to learn important things and you’re going to get excited and inspired. The Law School launched my career and gave me the core skills to be successful.” He clerked for Court of Appeals Judge John Minor Wisdom and Supreme Court Justice Byron White after graduation, and then worked for Senator Walter Mondale before joining Williams & Connolly (then Williams Connolly & Califano).

Barnett was recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of the Law School in 2010. He has served on the Visiting Committee, and at the 2011 reunion he joined Professor Geof Stone in a very engaging “fireside chat” moderated by Dean Schill. He has been married since 1972 to CBS news correspondent Rita Braver, whom he met while they were in college (he proposed to her on their first date; she accepted five years later). Their daughter, Meredith, is a freelance consultant and writer. Asked once to name his proudest accomplishment, he answered, “Meredith Barnett. I wish I had four more Meredith Barnetts.” These days his daughter has to share star billing in her father’s firmament with her son, Theodore Braver Penn. “I wish I had twenty more Teddy Penns,” Barnett says.