It is almost as though Clayland Boyden Gray, the lanky lawyer and an heir to the R. J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, had been groomed all his life to be counsel to the President of the United States.
He grew up in a white-columned presidential mansion on the campus of the University of North Carolina. His father, Gordon Gray, was not only president of the university but a golfing buddy of Sen. Prescott Bush, the father of the 41st President.
These days, the 48-year-old attorney operates from a wood-paneled second-floor office in the West Wing of the White House. And the casual, soft-spoken and seemingly distracted Boyden Gray has become the ideological leader of the conservative legal forces in the Bush Administration.
For nearly two years, Gray and his staff of White House lawyers have relentlessly fought congressional Democrats and civil rights advocates who were seeking to overturn the rulings of the Rehnquist Court. For the last year, they have also fought Republicans, such as Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who sought to fashion a compromise civil rights bill.
This week, it seemed they were even fighting President Bush.
Bush had agreed last month to sign a civil rights bill that overturned seven Supreme Court rulings and gave women a new right to seek damages for discrimination or harassment on the job.
But, on Wednesday, Gray and two lawyers on his staff drafted and disseminated copies of a presidential order calling for agencies to "immediately terminate" any policy or program that "encourages" the hiring of workers on the basis of "preferences, set-asides or other similar devices."
Leaders of civil rights groups, who had watched Gray fight over every word and comma in the legislation, were outraged that the White House counsel seemed to be redefining the bill on the day it was signed into law.
On Thursday, the President, beating a quick retreat, abandoned much of Gray's statement and announced instead, "I say again today that I support affirmative action. Nothing in this bill overturns the government's affirmative action programs."
Where Gray and his lawyers had taken a hard line against "quotas" and "racial preferences," the President opted for a more muddled position. He has denounced quotas but has endorsed government affirmative action programs that include specific "preferences" based on race and gender.
The latest flap over affirmative action has reaffirmed Gray's standing as the Administration's chief villain in the eyes of civil rights attorneys.
"Boyden Gray and the people who work for him are the single most important reason for the bitter and anguished struggle over the civil rights legislation," said Kerry Scanlon, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "He has put together an ideological Mafia, and they exert a tremendous amount of power. This small group of right-wing extremists has set policy for the whole Administration."
Like William Bradford Reynolds in the Ronald Reagan Administration's Justice Department, Gray assembled a staff of young, aggressive and rigidly conservative lawyers who set out to reshape federal anti-discrimination laws. Several served as law clerks to Reagan appointees on the Supreme Court, where they played a key role in writing court opinions that made it more difficult for minority members and women to win job discrimination claims.
One Gray staff member has an even closer tie to the high court: Attorney Janet Rehnquist is the 33-year-old daughter of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
Gray took for himself the job of being the Administration's lead negotiator on the civil rights bill. In that role, civil rights advocates said, they found him awkward and odd and inflexible.
But Gray pleased advocates for the disabled when he took up their cause during negotiations on the pending Americans with Disabilities Act. He explained that he had felt somewhat handicapped as a young man because of his 6-foot, 6-inch height.
He raised eyebrows during the negotiations on the civil rights bill when he commented that he felt empathy with minority members because he had been the lone Southerner and "WASP" on the board of the Harvard Crimson, the school's newspaper.
"You could see the blacks and Hispanics looking at each other as he told this story," said one civil rights negotiator, who described the incident.
On another occasion, he ripped from the hands of former Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman, a prominent black Republican, a White House proposal that would have allowed companies to refuse to hire blacks if they concluded that doing so would be bad for business.
"This is no longer operative," Gray said, tearing up the paper.
But, mostly, civil rights lawyers said, they became frustrated with Gray because he would not budge.
"He was worse than (White House Chief of Staff John H.) Sununu," said one civil rights negotiator.
Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said he no longer is willing to deal with Gray. "He has put together a team of right-wingers who are more extreme than Meese," referring to former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III. "They are determined to turn the clock back on civil rights."
But conservatives say Gray is being attacked because he vigorously fought proposals that would encourage "quotas" and "racial preferences" in the guise of an anti-discrimination law.
For two decades, the legal fights over civil rights have turned on the same issue: Were the federal civil rights laws intended to protect women, blacks and members of other minorities from discrimination? Or were they intended to forbid any discrimination, including against white males? Although groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund take the former view, Gray and his attorneys take the latter.
"Boyden is right on the law. He has taken the principled position," said Reynolds, the Reagan Administration's civil rights chief. "They can't fight him on the substance, so they are attacking Boyden as the bad guy in all this. That distracts people from the real issue, but that's the way the game is played in Washington."
Terry Eastland, a spokesman and speech writer in the Meese Justice Department, lauded Gray for standing firm against the civil rights activists.
"This bill is less of a quota bill than before, and you have to credit Boyden Gray for that," Eastland said. "His responsibility is the law, not politics and strategy, and you have to understand him in those terms."
But, in Washington, nearly everything is political, and Gray's lawyerly zeal may be hurting his client, George Bush.
"Boyden is politically hard of hearing," said a Republican political consultant, who asked not to be identified. "He got a better bill for the President on the substance of it, but he has gone about it in a way that hurt politically."
Last week, for example, just days after Bush had proclaimed that he and Congress had reached agreement on civil rights, Gray published an opinion piece in the Washington Post claiming that he had won a "startling success" and the Democrats had made a "complete capitulation."
"That made no sense. The President is trying to make a truce, and (Gray) is taking an 'in your face' attitude," the Republican consultant said.
Because Gray has enjoyed a long and close relationship with Bush, most political advisers doubt that his job is threatened because of the furor over the draft presidential order.
Like Bush, Gray grew up in a large, wealthy family. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate and then returned to Chapel Hill for law school at the University of North Carolina. After graduating as the valedictorian in 1968, he clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren.
He went to work for the Democratic-dominated Washington law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering but grew disenchanted with the Democrats in the 1970s. In 1981, newly elected Vice President George Bush hired him as his counsel. His duties included representing Bush during the inquiries arising out of the Iran-Contra affair. When Bush became President, his first appointment made Boyden Gray the White House counsel.
Often, Gray is portrayed as a shy eccentric. His assets are said to exceed $10 million, but he motors around Washington in a 1978 Chevy Citation that is powered by ethanol.
Although he avoids the spotlight, Gray and his small staff of attorneys have taken on tasks that are often handled by the Justice Department, such as screening Supreme Court candidates and hammering out the details of civil rights policies. And, once engaged in a fight, Gray has proved to be unyielding.
Although the new civil rights bill is now law, the attorneys who negotiated it say they expect the fight with the White House counsel to go on.
Said Neas, the director of the civil rights coalition, "I am confident that Boyden Gray will do everything in his power to undermine the Civil Rights Act of 1991, as well as the civil rights policies of the last quarter century."