PERSONALITY IN THE NEWS : Barr: Conservative With ‘Political Savvy’ Is on Fast Track


William P. Barr, President Bush’s nominee to become attorney general, was encouraged by his Depression-era mother to attend night law school while working at the CIA because she thought it would enhance his job security.

Barr decided to heed his mother’s advice, figuring a law degree would put “another arrow in his quiver” that might help him advance at the intelligence agency, his first love. Instead, Barr’s secondary interest in the law fueled a meteoric rise that will make him the nation’s foremost attorney, if he is confirmed by the Senate.

At 41, Barr appears likely to become one of the youngest attorneys general of the modern era. Only the late Robert F. Kennedy at 36 and Ramsey Clark at 40 were younger than Barr when they assumed the post. But both men had unusual connections--Kennedy’s brother was President and Clark’s father was a former Supreme Court justice.


Barr--known for his dry, self-deprecating wit and full-bodied laugh--is a staunch conservative who rarely hesitates to put his hard-line views into action.

In the most notable example, as an assistant attorney general Barr wrote a controversial 1989 legal opinion authorizing federal agents to seize fugitives overseas without a foreign government’s permission.

Barr was elevated to deputy attorney general in May, 1990, when his predecessor, Donald B. Ayer, resigned in anger, contending that then-Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and his long-time aides were preventing him from doing his job.

According to career department lawyers and political appointees, Barr carried out that job as if walking a tightrope, managing to loosen the rigid hold of Thornburgh’s aides and allowing assistant attorneys general to run their respective divisions once again. As far as is known, he did so without offending his boss, Thornburgh.

“He brought that off because both men have political savvy and will settle for the achievable,” said one career department official.

Barr’s favorite form of relaxation is playing the bagpipe, an avocation he began at the age of 8. He has grown so skilled that he plays as a member of the Denny & Dunipace Band, a group that plans to compete next August in Scotland for the world championship. He occasionally plays at Justice Department functions, outfitted in kilts and other bagpipe apparel, and he sometimes plays tapes of pipe music in his office.


Barr arrived in Washington to work for the CIA the day after he was married in 1973. He had no political contacts, but was armed with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in government from Columbia University in his hometown of New York.

His studies had a special concentration on Chinese studies. It was typical Barr thinking that prompted that focus. Partly because of his father’s World War II service with the Office of Strategic Services--the forerunner of the CIA--he wanted to work for the intelligence agency. But he correctly assumed that the agency was already saturated with Soviet experts.

Working in the CIA’s intelligence directorate analyzing Chinese radio broadcasts, Barr decided to spend his nights at George Washington University’s Law School, fearing that he could get “boxed in counting rivets on Chinese tanks.” His mother, who taught English as a second language, influenced that decision on the grounds that a lawyer could withstand a second Depression better than a non-professional.

Barr later transferred to the CIA’s legislative affairs unit during the tense period when special Senate and House committees were investigating the agency’s activities, particularly those that seemed to exceed the CIA’s charter. At age 27, Barr was helping to carry out some of the agency’s most delicate domestic relations.

Meantime, Barr was graduated from law school, ranking second among all day and evening students. He cut short his agency career after President Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 and Stansfield Turner took over as CIA director, bringing a style of management that Barr and some other career employees at the agency found unacceptable.

Barr then served as a law clerk to Judge Malcolm Wilkey of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He later joined the law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge here--taking time out to serve on the domestic policy staff at the White House under former President Ronald Reagan in 1982. He subsequently returned to the law firm, becoming a partner.


He worked part time in Bush’s 1988 campaign, first on issues, but mainly on the process that led to the selection of then-Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) as Bush’s vice presidential candidate.

After the election, he joined Bush’s Justice Department as the head of the office of legal counsel--a post known as the attorney general’s chief legal adviser.

William Barr

Born: May 23, 1950.

Background/Education: BA, Columbia University, 1971 in Chinese studies; MA, Columbia University, 1973; JD, George Washington University, 1977.

Career: 1973-77, staffer, legislative office, Central Intelligence Agency; 1977-78, law clerk to Judge Malcolm Richard Wilkey, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; 1978-82 and 1983-89, attorney and later partner in Washington law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge; 1982-83, deputy assistant director for legal policy, Office of Policy Development, the White House; 1989-90, assistant attorney general, Office of the Legal Counsel, Department of Justice; 1990-91, deputy attorney general, Department of Justice.

His politics: Conservative Republican.

Accomplishments: Author of controversial ruling that empowers federal agents to wrest fugitives from foreign countries without first obtaining the permission of the other government involved. Made decision to send in FBI hostage rescue team during Talladega, Ala., prison riot, ending disturbance there without loss of life. Kept Justice Department together during turmoil in final months of tenure of Dick Thornburgh.

His chances: Almost certain.

Supporters: Republicans.

Opponents: Liberal Democrats.

Hobbies: A serious, competitive bagpipe player, member of a bagpipe band.