The churn between presidential administrations is typically the sweet spot for Bob Barnett, the Washington superlawyer who likes to describe himself as the “doorman to the revolving door.” Outgoing White House officials, from the president on down, are ready to cash in with book deals, sign with speaker bureaus, become paid contributors on cable networks and negotiate potential corporate board and employment opportunities. And Barnett—famous for charging his $1,250 hourly rate, rather than the 10 to 15 percent commission that literary and talent agents typically take off the top—has been Washington, D.C.’s go-to deal-maker for this kind of work for four decades.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are longtime clients, as are many of their bold-faced-named former advisers, like James Carville and David Axelrod. So is George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Karl Rove. Barnett’s been at the political celebrity game for decades, since he sold Geraldine Ferraro’s book, in 1984, for $1 million. He’s so competitive that his law firm, Williams & Connolly, waived the retirement age so Barnett, 70, could keep on chugging.
And on the face of it, it doesn’t look like much has changed in the intervening decades for Barnett, a wise man of the Washington establishment—always dressed in a suit and sporting his signature antique cuff links—except for the dollar amount of his deals exponentially ticking up. Barnett, now a local legend, appears to be at the top of his negotiating game even as the establishment he is a part of is being overturned by another master deal-maker, President Donald Trump.
It was Barnett who represented the Obamas in their nonfiction record-breaking $60 million book deal with Penguin Random House that closed in February—a mammoth deal that seemed to cement his status as a superlawyer without peer. It was Barnett’s name, lawyering for his old friend Hillary Clinton, at the bottom of the announcement that Simon & Schuster had purchased a book of inspirational quotes and personal essays from the defeated 2016 Democratic nominee.
But the Obama and Clinton book deals are being viewed by people in the publishing and agenting business as potentially something of a Barnett swan song. His old-school tactics—a multimillion-dollar book deal for an outgoing government official, coupled with a launch on “60 Minutes” or one of the Sunday shows—seem out of sync in the age of Trump, a former reality show star who reverse-engineered his presidency by starting with the lucrative book, the branding and the television deals and then worked his way into the Oval Office.
Though Barnett usually has no problem repping Republicans, he’s not in with the most high-profile members of this new crew—Ivanka Trump, for instance, was represented by WME’s Mel Berger for her latest book, Women Who Work, due out in May. And in this moment of disruption—in which the president of the United States came into office vowing to “drain the swamp”—Barnett seems vulnerable to a potential disruption, too. Competing talent agents are making big plays for Barnett’s bread-and-butter clients, pitching lawmakers, on-air talent and high-profile government officials who are transitioning out of public life.
Their pitch is that Barnett is outdated and they can offer something more.
In February, Los Angeles-based talent agency Creative Artists Agency made a major play in Washington: The agency announced it had signed Joe and Jill Biden as clients, including representation of all of their future book deals, along with: former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former national security adviser Susan Rice, as well as former California Senator Barbara Boxer—precisely the types of brand-name politicos who for years have simply defaulted to Barnett’s client list. They recently poached Fox News’ Tucker Carlson from Barnett, and are working on other television personalities.
“CAA is telling everyone in town that they will be a one-stop shop,” said one top Democratic operative, noting that the agency has been promising an integrated approach that includes paid speaking tours, as well as documentary, film projects—and more career advice and planning in between the book and television deal signings. Barnett, in contrast, helps clients sign with a speaking bureau but does not book those speeches himself.
CAA is not the only one trying to play in Barnett’s sandbox. Javelin, an Alexandria-based talent agency founded by two former George W. Bush operatives, Matt Latimer and Keith Urbahn, has also been moving in on old Barnett territory, pitching itself as younger, hungrier, more connected to the conservative world—and able to offer more editorial, writing and cutting-edge PR and social media support. (Latimer writes regularly for Politico Magazine.)
“We knew Barnett would always occupy a certain part of the D.C. ecosystem,” Urbahn, president and co-founder of Javelin, explains of his business model. “Our approach since we started six years ago was that we were going to bet on the rising stars in politics and journalism and help them think through books and media deals.”
Javelin’s client roster includes Senators Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse; former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; and Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador in the Bush administration. The duo recently signed Steve Hilton, former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s director of strategy, for a contract with Fox, a television show and a book deal.
Meanwhile, rival agents in the publishing world were quick to notice that Barnett’s firm, Williams & Connolly, listed a partner to Barnett in the Obama book deal: Deneen Howell, sparking whispers that Barnett was finally grooming a successor.
Barnett declined to be interviewed for this story. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I am sorry,” he wrote me in an email when I asked if he would speak to me. When he found out through the grapevine that I was trudging along anyway, making calls to his clients and competitors, he abruptly canceled a pre-scheduled lunch, for which he had reserved his 12:30 p.m. table for two at Oceanaire, an upscale seafood restaurant three blocks from the White House.
In the past, however, Barnett has quietly engineered favorable press for himself through his network of powerful friends and clients. “A favor,” he wrote to Hillary Clinton on Feb. 25, 2010, in an email that was released by the State Department as part of Clinton’s email dump during the election. “David Montgomery, a reporter for the [Washington Post], is (God help me) doing a profile of me. Would you be willing to speak with him for 5 minutes? I would be very grateful.”
Clinton was eventually quoted in the fawning article, saying of Barnett, “it is very helpful personally as well as professionally to have him by your side.”
Barnett was, indeed, loyally at Clinton’s side last year, during her brutal, depressing, career-ending 2016 election, helping her prepare for the Democratic primary debates by standing in as Bernie Sanders, even as he was struggling with his own health scare.
Barnett’s colleagues on the Clinton campaign said he was so private about his health ordeal that most of them didn’t know what he was battling. Ahead of a prep session in February of 2016, he wrote a small group of Clinton’s top aides: “A medicine I am taking made my hair blotchy. So, rather than scare my grandchildren, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to shave my head. I am fine. Just didn’t want anyone to be surprised. For those old enough to understand the reference, just think of it as my Kojak phase. See you tomorrow.” (The email was made public by the WikiLeaks breach of former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal email account.)
Barnett has recovered, friends said. And if Clinton had won, people close to him said, he was considering going into the administration for the final chapters of his career.
Instead, he’s out and about, gamely trying to stay on top and make connections in a new world where a close bond with Clinton, or even the Obamas, doesn’t carry the currency it once did. When Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway lunched in February at Michael’s restaurant in New York City—the prime watering hole of the media and publishing elite—Barnett was spotted “linger[ing]a bit too long at Conway’s table,” columnist Michael Wolff observed of the thirsty schmoozing. He was spotted, on the same trip, at News Corp.’s midtown headquarters. Barnett isn’t without connections in Trumpland: In the past, he has represented Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, and he is friends with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s CIA director, was a lawyer at Williams & Connolly for seven years. Barnett, meanwhile, has remained as fiercely competitive as he was in the early days of his career, fighting off his rivals to sign Ralph Lauren, Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken. “I don’t get ‘em all, but I get my share,” he has told friends.
But buddying up to Conway illustrates Barnett’s new status in the new Washington. In his 2013 book, This Town, New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich describes Barnett’s power as embodying someone who can “legitimize a person’s earning power just by representing him or her.” He estimated Barnett also represented about 375 journalists at the time, which helped with keeping the cycle of positive press churning. Barnett, sources said, was furious about his portrayal in the book and has blacklisted the writer since.
But in Trump’s Washington, where all of the aides are already famous, the merger between entertainment and politics is complete. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, whose daily televised news briefings are ratings bonanzas, can’t go to the Apple Store on the weekend without being filmed live on Periscope. Conway, who has close to 1.3 million Twitter followers, is constantly stopped for selfies with fans and stalked by paparazzi. Steve Bannon is a recurring “Saturday Night Live” character, portrayed as the Grim Reaper. Does Washington still need Barnett to negotiate the transaction between politics and entertainment?
Some loyal clients say: undoubtedly, yes.
“If Barnett is your representation, particularly on the senior staff side, your net value just by dropping his name goes up 25 percent,” says Republican strategist Juleanna Glover, a Barnett client. “He is still the gold standard in terms of contract negotiations.”
When Hachette wanted to approach former Obama deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco about writing a memoir, the publisher didn’t bother trying to track her down: It reached out, first, to Barnett, who set up the meeting and ended up representing the author, whose book recently debuted on the New York Times best-seller list. “Everyone knows Bob, and Bob knows how to get to everybody,” Mastromonaco says.
His longtime clients describe him as a man so decent, even babies can’t help but fall for his charms. Former Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala recalls his wife and new infant stopping by a debate prep session in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1992, when his son started bawling in the middle of a mock session. “Barnett, who was playing Bush, breaks character, walks away, takes the baby—and in one second, the baby stopped crying,” Begala told me. Begala has been a loyal client since leaving the White House, relying on Barnett to negotiate his arrangement with CNN, as well as his book deals. “He always got me more than I think I’m worth,” he said.
Barnett is a Democrat, and has developed a side specialty in prepping Democratic presidential candidates for debates. But clients on both sides of the aisle feel loyal. “He exudes complete integrity, and he’s one of the sagest advisers I’ve ever been able to call upon,” says Rove. “He has counseled me on every professional decision I’ve made. He’s advised me on consulting arrangements, board possibilities, speaker bureaus.”
For every grateful client, however, Barnett has plenty of high-powered detractors in town. They just aren’t as hasty to go on the record. Many scoff at the idea that there is a “secret sauce” to the Barnett book deal—other than simply having the right clients.
The rap on Barnett’s business model, among his competitors, is that he hangs a “for sale” sign on the most desirable house in the neighborhood, and a bidding war ensues. Or, as Leibovich noted in an interview, “just because you’re the bartender at spring break doesn’t mean you’re a good bartender.” To stretch his metaphor, Washington’s elite has been Barnett’s reliable spring break, and the Obama books were the year the gang shelled out for Cancun.
One top executive, trying to explain the Barnett mystique, blames it on Washington’s lack of creativity. “I think people go to him because people in Washington have been too lazy or stupid to do anything else,” the executive told me. Barnett, does, however, have a reputation for straight talk with interested clients: telling them point-blank that they don’t have a best-selling book to write, or that they aren’t cut out for a future on television.
Barnett, friends say, is aware of the criticism, and shrugs it off as nothing more than jealousy at his success.
But he is also what many point out is a walking conflict of interest. In the past, he might have booked, for instance, a publicity tour for a big client that begins with an exclusive sit-down on Fox News with Chris Wallace, a onetime client. And he has represented on-air talent at networks who have overlapping and competing beats—where one client’s win is the other client’s loss.
Barnett, even his clients agree, is not there to coach through a book proposal: His business is, for the most part, getting a contract signed. In the acknowledgments of his book The War Within, journalist Bob Woodward wrote of his lawyer, Barnett: “because he represents prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle … he was not consulted on the contents of this book and did not see it until it was printed.”
Barnett does his heavy lifting at the contract stage of the negotiations. In those deals, he follows what the client wants. For instance, when Bill Clinton was selling his memoir, My Life, as he left office in 2000, Barnett engineered what’s known in publishing as a “unilateral placement.” Clinton knew the editor he wanted to work with at Knopf, and Barnett had a $15 million price tag in mind. Clinton met the Knopf team at the Biltmore in Miami, where he was playing golf, and after a three-hour meeting, everyone agreed to the terms of the deal. When it came to selling Hillary Clinton’s first memoir, Living History, however, Barnett threw an auction that lasted about a week, and included about 15 publishers. Simon & Schuster ultimately prevailed, offering an $8 million advance, and has been her publisher ever since.
Javelin’s Latimer says he takes a different approach: working with clients to develop the book proposal before there even is one. “Our argument to authors is that it’s often a detriment to be a politician,” he says. Sasse, for example, “talked with us long before he was elected to office and the idea he had then continued to be the one he focused on: not his trajectory as a rising star senator, or some dry policy platform, but about his time as a college president.”
Barnett is not the first lawyer-turned-agent to make a name for himself in an industry that doesn’t usually breed celebrities. The archetype of the Barnett genre was Mort Janklow, a onetime corporate lawyer who became a publishing world force representing authors like Danielle Steel and Pope John Paul II. Like Barnett, Janklow was a staple on the social scene, whose currency was his Rolodex. But Barnett, over the course of his career, took it to another level in Washington, providing a service to the swirl of power brokers, and making millions for his clients.
And Barnett, his friends say, sees the competitors nipping at his heels as a cyclical story, one that comes along every time a new Republican administration enters office. He doesn’t believe Trump will be any different, and is as confident as ever that he’s untouchable; that his connections in the industry, dating back decades, are impossible to replicate. “You’ve got to know the players,” Barnett has told associates who have asked him how he keeps winning big deals after all these years. “Nothing’s impossible, but it would be very hard to do this from scratch.”