George Clooney depends on ‘Cuz’

LAWYER: David Pressman outside the United Nations.
LAWYER: David Pressman outside the United Nations.
(Leo Sorel/ For the Times)

WHEN IT comes to human rights, George Clooney is one of Hollywood’s most active major stars. But what can any celebrity activist be without a consigliere? The man Clooney relies on for advice on the issues he cares most about is David Pressman, an accomplished New York civil rights attorney and former staff member in President Clinton’s State Department.

Some might argue that Pressman has one of Hollywood’s most desirable jobs, a trusted member of an A-lister’s inner circle. But what Clooney values most about the understated, unassuming Pressman, though, is that he doesn’t have a trace of Hollywood about him -- other than he’s Central Casting’s idea of a human rights activist. (Only 30, he graduated from law school with honors, worked for the ACLU and clerked for the Supreme Court -- of Rwanda. He and his law partner Ron Kuby recently persuaded a Bronx judge to overturn the conviction of a man who spent 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In his spare time, he’s learning about directing operas at Lincoln Center.)

“He’s as smart politically as anyone I know, and he’s brave,” Clooney said this week. “I talk to him at least three times a week; I depend on him to keep me informed.”

In early 2006, Clooney and his newscaster dad, Nick Clooney, resolved to go to Sudan to see the situation in war-torn Darfur themselves. They were having trouble finding somebody with the right connections and courage to guide them through a combat zone while lugging the camera with which they planned to make a documentary. And it wasn’t what normally passes for shooting on location because, in that part of sub-Saharan Africa, even Clooney’s name carries less weight than an empty Kalashnikov magazine.


Then the elder Clooney met one of Pressman’s relatives at a party and learned of the extensive connections the young lawyer had made in the region through his work as a special assistant to then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and, later, as a Sudan expert for the United Nations. The elder Clooney called Pressman the next day. Both Clooneys quickly came to view Pressman as a member of the family. “I call him ‘Cuz,’ ” Clooney said. “My dad seems to think we’re related. I’m not sure how he came up with that.”

The idea makes Pressman chuckle. “He’s an Irishman, and I’m a Jew. Go figure.”

Over lunch recently at a fashionable bistro near his Chelsea law office, Pressman recalls that a female friend reacted in horror when he told her that he was taking George Clooney into Darfur. “She said, ‘You realize if anything happens to him, you will be committing the greatest crime against womankind,’ ” Pressman said.

Since the first trip in 2006, Pressman and Clooney have gone on a number of missions to Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa to lobby for peace in Darfur.

The Clooney-Pressman collaboration is emblematic of a new era in celebrity activism among those who want to do more than casually lend their names to passing causes. Top political advisors are in demand, and there are few now at work in this area: Trevor Nelson, a former Clinton White House staffer, serves as advisor to Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Shakira. Another Clinton veteran, John Prendergast,works closely on African issues with Mia Farrow and Don Cheadle. (He also has the distinction of being the one who took Jolie on her first trip to Africa.)

When it comes to the law and human rights, Pressman has a gold-plated résumé.

The son of a liberal judge and another attorney, Pressmen grew up in California believing that the law was a tool of equal rights and equal justice and not just a career.

After law school at New York University and work overseas, he joined the late William Kunstler’s law firm. He loved the idea of taking on cases most firms wouldn’t touch, like the Indian activist Leonard Peltier‘s ongoing pardon request.

Then came Clooney, and Pressman still seems a little dazed over his new comrade, who has affected his life in unexpected ways. Over lunch, a writer complimented the civil rights attorney on his elegant blue suit. “This is the best suit I own,” he said proudly. “It’s by a European designer whose name I can’t pronounce.”


Naturally Clooney was involved: When the pair went to Beijing to lobby and Pressman’s luggage was lost, he had nothing to wear to their meetings. Within a few hours, Clooney turned up with the suit.

“George Clooney makes an excellent stylist,” Pressman quipped.

When they first landed in Sudan in 2006, a teenage militia member greeted them by sticking the muzzle of a rifle in Clooney’s face because the star was trying to film the arrival. Clooney recalls that Pressman nonchalantly walked over, pushed the muzzle of the gun aside, calmed the boy down with a few lighthearted words and went on as if nothing had happened.

The duo have a busy summer planned, one that involves an increasing number of Clooney’s Hollywood colleagues. Pitt, Cheadle and Matt Damon have all joined the group Clooney and Pressman co-founded, Not on Our Watch.

At the moment, they’re pursuing a two-pronged strategy, with Clooney lobbying Western leaders such as British Prime Minster Gordon Brown for helicopters that can be used to distribute food and other humanitarian aid to refugees in Darfur. At the same time, he is serving as a U.N. messenger of peace, traveling around the world to raise awareness about the situation in Darfur and other trouble spots. And, quietly, the actor has met with Sudanese rebel leaders urging them back to the conference table.

For Pressman, there’s a personal drive here. His Jewish family’s roots are in Eastern Europe, and he understands all too well what it means when the world looks away from mass murder.

“We keep saying ‘never again,’ ” Pressman said. “And yet it’s again, and again, and again.”