In his first job as a White House lawyer, Fred Fielding, barely in his 30s, broke the news to President Nixon about the Watergate break-in.
In 1981, when President Reagan was shot and lying on an operating table, it was Fielding who helped settle a dispute about who was in charge of the nation. A few years later, Reagan’s counsel stood at the president’s bedside, making sure he was competent to reclaim his authority after cancer surgery.
Now, more than two decades later, President Bush has brought the 67-year-old lawyer back to handle legal fights the White House expects with the new Democratic Congress.
In an Associated Press interview, he is so soft-spoken that some of his words are drowned out by heat blowing from a register across the room. But Fielding, who has defended huge corporate clients, is no pushover.
Still, he insists he has no interest in stonewalling Democrats, who plan to investigate the Iraq war, suspected government fraud and White House decision-making on environmental policy, secret surveillance and other matters. The White House could erect roadblocks to congressional subpoenas and requests for information.
“Then nobody gets anything done,” said Fielding, who has a tiny motorized train on his desk that runs in a circle on its way to nowhere. “If they need information and we can provide them information consistent with not giving away the executive branch prerogatives, then we’ll find a way.”
In responding to congressional requests for documents, Fielding will be conferring at times with Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, who have broadly interpreted the powers of the presidency. Cheney has argued that executive privilege, which lets the president seek advice and deliberate policy without having to disclose the information, has been eroded by Congress in response to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
“There has been some erosion, but this is historic,” Fielding said. “Sometimes, the executive branch has more leverage. Sometimes the legislative branch has more.”
‘I’m the old guy’
Some things — like the office phone number — haven’t changed since Fielding held the job before. He still has some of his old business cards. A photo of Reagan and him on Air Force One is back on the office wall. The two are smiling as Reagan holds up a bumper sticker that says: “My lawyer can beat your lawyer.”
Another more recent photo taken at his daughter’s wedding is evidence that much time has passed. It shows Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who was one of Fielding’s young staff lawyers in the Reagan White House. In respect to his former boss, Roberts inscribed the photo: “Some folks said I need a little bit more gray hair, but I told them you had enough for both of us.”
“I’m the old guy,” Fielding said, making light of his image as the experienced legal hand brought on board to battle Congress.
Fielding was born in Philadelphia and grew up on a farm in Bucks County, Pa. His father died when he was 11. He attended public schools, played football, fished and worked on neighborhood farms in the summers. He attended Gettysburg College and the University of Virginia School of Law on scholarships.
After law school, he worked with a Philadelphia law firm, and in 1970 became deputy to former White House Counsel John Dean. As news of the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters broke over the capital, Fielding remembers trying to convince Dean, who was on his way back from a trip to the Philippines, that he should return to Washington at once instead of staying over in California to rest.
“I said ‘There’s something in the newspaper that there’s a lot of interest in,’” Fielding said. “I didn’t know how big it was. I just thought that, maybe, as counsel to the president, he ought to come back.”
Years later, Fielding was included — incorrectly — in speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat,” a source for Watergate news stories.
Now, Dean predicts Fielding will work under the radar to fight the big fights with Congress and let some of the little ones slide.
“Fred, by nature, is not hard-nosed,” Dean said. “I think he’ll try to split the difference ... and stop all the nonsense.”
Fielding left the Nixon White House and returned to private practice in January 1974. Reagan picked him to be his chief counsel in 1981.
On the day Reagan was shot, Fielding was in the White House nerve center discussing succession and command authority. It was the day that Secretary of State Al Haig came out of the Situation Room and declared on national television: “I am in control here.”
‘I need my glasses’
A few years later, Fielding stood at Reagan’s bedside when he reclaimed his presidential powers after surgery — the first time the Constitution’s presidential disability clause was invoked
Fielding and other advisers were wondering how to determine whether the former president had regained his mental faculties so he could take back the powers he had handed to Vice President George H.W. Bush before the surgery.
“I asked the doctor, ‘If he can read the letter and answer questions about it, would that be a test of his cognitive ability?’” Fielding said. “The doctor said ‘Yeah.’”
Knowing that his advisers were testing him, Reagan squinted and acted puzzled and confused over the letter. Then, just as they started showing signs of worry, Reagan quipped: “Hey guys. “I’m sorry. I need my glasses.”