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Ginsburg’s (Almost) Last Word

TIMES STAFF WRITER

William H. Ginsburg knows all about kissing babies and trying cases. He considers both to be glorious pursuits.

He waxed rhapsodic three months ago as he recalled coddling his most famous client, Monica S. Lewinsky, as an infant. Perhaps a little too rhapsodic.

“I was there at the beginning,” began just one of many Ginsburg quotes that later came back to haunt him. “I kissed that little girl’s inner thighs when she was six days old--I said, ‘Look at those little poulkes.’ I truly am the avuncular Mr. Ginsburg.”

To suggest now that the remark might be considered off-color considering the client was in the middle of a sex scandal involving the president of the United States is to invite the full force of a Ginsburgian confrontation. “Do you have children? No? Then don’t talk to me about kissing babies. You kiss them all over--their wonderful, sweet little legs and fingers and toes and heads, their little poulkes,” he said, once again invoking the Yiddish word for legs.

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He reserves his harshest disdain for the critics--and they are legion--who have questioned whether Ginsburg competently defended Lewinsky in special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr’s probe of President Clinton.

To his critics, the 55-year-old senior partner of a Beverly Hills medical malpractice firm and the veteran of more than 200 trials, has this to say:

“Bah, humbug!. . . . Why don’t you get into the arena? Know the sweat, blood, tears that go into the process of winning and losing. Don’t stand on the sidelines criticizing. After you have handled a few high-profile and high-pressure jury trials, then come back and comment. Until then, may I suggest that you curb your tongues and your criticism.”

How history will treat Ginsburg’s representation of Lewinsky is a chapter yet to be written. It will depend greatly on whether she is indicted by or testifies before the grand jury.

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Neither had occurred as Ginsburg departed Washington and returned to his Beverly Hills practice. As that news became public last week, even the spin on why he no longer represents her was contradictory.

Still, the court of public opinion doesn’t seem to be leaning his way on the question of whether he did a good job.

In his own assessment, Ginsburg accomplished some, but not all, of his goals in representing Lewinsky, the 24-year-old daughter of his longtime friend, Brentwood radiologist Bernard Lewinsky. In the end, he says he bowed out because his public warring with Starr had diminished his effectiveness.

“Of course I’m sorry as a dyed-in-the-wool trial lawyer that I will miss the fight, but I want her to be exonerated in every way,” he said. “It’s now up to her new defense team to get her out of the vise of this independent counsel who, in my opinion, is squeezing her to a high degree, unfairly and without justification.”

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Happy to Be Home

He seems relieved to have returned to a more normal life, happy to be able to attend his son’s high school graduation today out of the glare of the limelight. He’s once again ensconced at his home in Sherman Oaks, which he has filled with books and music and art over the past two decades. He’s been reunited with his wife of 23 years, an educator he respects and considers “my best friend for life.” Twice while describing her in an interview, he used the word “tough.”

He carries away from his six months in Washington a few lessons about the dangers of powerful special prosecutors and an increasingly competitive and scandal-mongering news media with a “scoop or perish” mind-set. “If you submitted the entire Bible to the press and one page had the word ‘sex’ printed on it, the press would focus on that word, rather than the other wonderful truths that we find in that book,” he said in the interview.

The days when he called CNN’s Wolf Blitzer “Wolfie” off camera and referred to Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” as “my new best friend” are behind him. For a while, it seemed that Ginsburg was everywhere--on television almost as much as Jerry Seinfeld. CNN, in the eyes of one writer, might well have been called the Ginsburg News Network.

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He set a record the first week in February by appearing on all five major Sunday political talk shows.

He stayed at the posh Cosmos Club in Washington, where he and his client chatted up Cokie Roberts at night in the bar. Then there were the dinners at Morton’s, the appearances at Larry King’s book-signing parties, the premiere of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Man in the Iron Mask” and at Time magazine’s anniversary party.

Soon, second-guessers began to question whether he’d in fact blown his client’s immunity deal and milked his own fame.

The conventional wisdom says he was a medical malpractice lawyer who did a favor for a friend, got in over his head in a hardball criminal investigation and talked too much about it on television.

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“He hurt himself,” said Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Harlan Braun, who is experienced in handling high-profile cases but avoids appearing on television. “He was out of his field. What hurt him is when he went on television so much, other lawyers started realizing that he didn’t know what he was doing.”

“Amateur hour,” scoffed Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, the harshest of Ginsburg’s critics. Another, a seasoned Washington lawyer, compared him to the simpleton gardener whose blatherings were mistaken for profundities in the Peter Sellers film “Being There.”

The law partners, former partners and attorneys who have opposed him agree that Ginsburg is bright and a quick study who wins far more frequently than he loses.

“He has a tremendous ability to focus on the heart of the issues,” says law partner George Stephan.

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Such contrasting portraits leave observers in a conundrum.

“Is he crazy, or crazy like a fox?” wondered the Washington Post. “Is there a method to his madness or is it just madness?” pondered the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

If he’s feeling a little backbitten by the criticism he has received, he doesn’t show it. If his head was turned by his 15 minutes of fame, he doesn’t acknowledge it.

He points out that twice before in the past two decades, his cases have given him national exposure.

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Born in Philadelphia, Ginsburg moved to Los Angeles as a youngster and attended Hamilton High School with O.J. Simpson defense lawyer Robert Shapiro and Joel Siegel, a film critic on “Good Morning America.” He recalls helping to launch a newspaper called The Iconclast that almost got him expelled until his attorney father, who had worked on Lyndon B. Johnson’s Senate staff, threatened to make a 1st Amendment issue out of it.

He and Siegel founded a social club called “The Hotties” that allowed just about anyone to join, cool or not. He says he does not recall the anecdote Siegel related to Newsweek--that their social studies teacher once had said, “Mr. Ginsburg, only open your mouth when you have something to say.”

He chuckled and said of Siegel, “I think he was having a little fun with me.”

Ginsburg studied theater and literature at Berkeley, and law at USC. Early in his legal career, he was involved in a suit to rid the Los Angeles County bar’s bylaws of discriminatory language. He defended conscientious objectors, although he had served in the military.

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Later, he defended pool and spa builders from lawsuits over swimming accidents. In 1984, he defended Glendale Adventist Medical Center in a landmark right-to-die case, managing to get a $10-million verdict against the hospital tossed out.

He defended Liberace’s doctor, who was accused of covering up the cause of the entertainer’s death from AIDS. And, he represented a cardiologist who was threatened with a malpractice suit over the death on court of Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers.

Both cases landed him on “60 Minutes.”

No Stranger to Media

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And so, Ginsburg argues convincingly that the limelight never turned his head, even as he seemed to relish it.

“I have met all those people or a version of them before,” he said. “I’ve known Mike Wallace for almost 15 years. My wife first met Wolf Blitzer. Wolf became a friend in the social sense, as well as a reporter.”

He added, “I did what I had to do.”

In the 16th minute of his fame, Ginsburg says he still has plenty left to accomplish. “There’s no sense of letdown because I’m not through,” he said.

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Ginsburg, along with Clinton’s lawyers, have helped fan the public backlash against Starr’s tactics, which they have criticized as abusive and invasive of constitutional guarantees, such as personal privacy rights. That campaign could well give him his niche in history.

“The 16th minute goes something like this,” Ginsburg said. “I have been blessed with 15 minutes of fame and recognition. That is an asset in a sense that it enables me to act as a spokesperson for what is right, and I fully intend to use that asset to make sure that at least one more definition of what is right is placed in the marketplace of ideas.”

In other words, he plans to continue to criticize the office of special prosecutor in general, and Starr’s investigation in particular.

“When you handle the press,” Ginsburg said, “you have to know that the press is going to bite you. You don’t care. You don’t worry about the press. If the world thinks you’re unconventional, that’s not important.”

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He quoted the playwright Eugene O’Neill: “ ‘A man who has tasted success and not pushed on to greater failures is a spiritual middle classer; how petty his dreams must have been.’ ” “That should be the motto of all trial lawyers.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Mr. Ginsburg Goes to Washington

Here are some of the statements attributed to William H. Ginsburg, former attorney for MonicaLewinsky:

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Jan. 23 on “Nightline”: “My lines are open and I think Mr. Starr and his staff know how to reach me. I’m not hard to reach.”

On CNN: “I had to ask myself, ‘How many FBI agents and U.S. attorneys does it take to handle a 24-year-year-old girl?”

Jan. 24: “Poor little Monica is scared out of her mind.”

Jan. 27, to the Israeli newspaper Yedlot Ahranot: “Clinton is very positive toward Israel and the Jews, and Monica and I are Jews. . .I don’t want the president to resign. Who knows who will come after Clinton and how he will deal with Israel?”

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Jan. 28, to the Washington Post: “I’m the most famous person in the world.” (Ginsburg says it was a sarcastic rejoinder that “was taken out of context by Bob Woodward in a very scurrilous manner.”

Jan. 29, to Barbara Walters on “20/20": “I think Ms. Lewinsky has a past. . . I think she has a youthful past. I think she, like every one of us, has things in her past that would theoretically make us look unreliable. I think she’s perfectly reliable.”

Jan. 30: “There are people who talk a lot and as part of the scenario, peccadilloes, they may tell fibs, lies, exaggerations, oversell.”

Feb. 1: Ginsburg makes television history, appearing on all five Sunday political talk shows.

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On “Meet the Press”: “The president will remain in office. He’ll do a good job. We’ll all, hopefully, have a sound economy, keep our jobs. And I think everything is going to be fine.”

March 24, to the New York Times, regarding criticism from criminal defense lawyers: “I have discovered that anyone who is not practicing law inside the Beltway is a country lawyer.”

May 24, to the Washington Post: “The press overwhelmed me. I’m not going to tell you I was good at it or I was bad at it, but I will tell you it was overwhelming.”

May 27, in an open letter to Starr in June issue of California Lawyer: “Congratulations, Mr. Starr! As a result of your callous disregard for cherished constitutional rights, you may have succeeded in unmasking a sexual relationship between two consenting adults.”

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June 3, in his first remarks as Lewinsky’s former attorney, to L.A. lawyers, judges and journalists: “If you submitted the entire Bible to the press and one page had the word ‘sex’printed on it, the press would focus on that word rather than the other wonderful truths that we find in that book.”


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