Today, the object of concern for David E. Kendall is a tiny thumb drive that sat in a safe at his law firm until a couple weeks ago before attracting the attention of Congress, the FBI and the news media. Once again, the whirlpool of Washington politics has arrived at Kendall's doorstep as he defends perhaps the world's most famous client.
For more than 20 years, Kendall has been on the front lines for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton as their personal lawyer, battling investigators and litigants in the superheated environment where law and politics meet. From Whitewater to impeachment, he has waged legal warfare to keep the Clintons' political careers on track. So as Hillary Clinton faces questions about her use of a personal email server as secretary of state, no one is surprised she turned to Kendall.
The latest furor has put Kendall under a spotlight in a way that discomfits the tight-lipped and camera-shy lawyer.
From Hillary Clinton's foes come public questions about why he had the thumb drive containing her email and whether he secured it properly. From her friends come private questions about whether he has managed the situation effectively and whether he should be more outspoken to protect a Democratic presidential candidate leading in the polls.
"They always say, 'Is Kendall the lawyer to do this or that?'" said James Carville, the former political strategist for Bill Clinton who expresses great admiration for Kendall. "I never saw that there was a huge conflict. But you know, sometimes lawyers are lawyers and spokespeople are spokespeople."
Kendall, said Carville, is not a public pit bull. "He has no bluster about him," Carville said. "He's aggressive, but he doesn't have an in-your-face kind of thing about him. I don't think he views that as his role. The chances that he's going to talk to the press are way beyond remote."
Unsurprisingly, Kendall declined to comment last week. But he enjoys Hillary Clinton's deep confidence.
"He has their complete trust, and he's earned their complete trust," said Robert Barnett, another lawyer for the Clintons and a partner with Kendall at Williams & Connolly in Washington. "There's nobody more dedicated to his clients than David Kendall. There's nobody who spends more time thinking about how to help his clients than David Kendall."
To critics, that is the problem. Kendall, who turned over the thumb drive to the Justice Department on Aug. 6, has become so integrated into the Clinton apparatus that he risks crossing the line from lawyer to participant, they said. Two Republican senators wrote him letters in recent weeks questioning his handling of the thumb drive.
"The problem with the Clintons is once you begin working with them or acting as their agent you often get caught up in their scandals," said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, a watchdog group suing over Hillary Clinton's email. "So now Mr. Kendall is stuck having to explain his handling of the classified information Mrs. Clinton gave him."
Michael B. Mukasey, an attorney general under President George W. Bush, said the thumb drive was a concern "insofar as it may contain information that should not be present outside a dot-gov setting that is approved for handling classified information." He added, "Recall John Deutch," referring to a former CIA director who faced charges for having classified information on home computers until Bill Clinton pardoned him.
In a letter to lawmakers, Kendall noted that although some email messages had recently been deemed classified, none was so designated at the time they were sent. And he noted that he and his law partner Katherine M. Turner both have security clearances.
While he did not elaborate, his security clearance appears to stem from his defense of David H. Petraeus, a former CIA director who pleaded guilty to providing classified material to his lover and biographer.
His defenders say Kendall is nothing if not discreet.
"He doesn't speak out of school. He doesn't gossip," said Robert F. Muse, who represented Petraeus' paramour, Paula Broadwell. "He takes very seriously the imperatives of dealing with classified information."
Slender and fastidious, reserved and precise, Kendall, 71, is hardly the picture of the Washington legal powerhouse. He stays off talk shows, turns down book agents and prefers to speak in letters and legal documents. If he gets to court, he does not pound the lectern or point his finger, but lays out a meticulous set of arguments crafted over many hours.
Yet despite his low profile, he has accumulated an extraordinary roster of high-profile clients. In addition to keeping Petraeus out of jail, he has defended The National Enquirer against celebrities, overturned a big libel judgment against The Washington Post and waged intellectual property cases for Sony Pictures Entertainment and Disney, and defended Bechtel in Boston's "Big Dig" investigation.
"He's a true Midwestern gentleman, but he's a true Midwestern gentleman lawyer who will be very prepared and will not shy away from battling when he believes it's in his client's interest," said Lanny A. Breuer, a former White House and Justice Department lawyer who worked alongside Kendall fighting Bill Clinton's impeachment.
Even Kendall's antagonist in that episode, Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel, praises him as "one of America's greatest lawyers," as he put it in an interview.
"He is going to fight tenaciously, tirelessly hard for his client," Starr said. "You'll get nothing handed to you. You'll just have to work and work because you know that David will, great lawyer that he is, put up every obstacle that he can as long as he is proceeding professionally."
Raised in a Quaker family in Sheridan, Indiana, by a father who worked as a grain elevator manager and a mother who taught school, Kendall was educated at Wabash College and came of age in the liberal movements of the 1960s. In 1964, he went to Mississippi during Freedom Summer to register black voters and was arrested several times. A half-century later, the only framed item on his office wall is a receipt from the Marshall County jail for the food he had to pay for during three days behind bars.
He earned a Rhodes scholarship and spent two years at Oxford University, just missing Bill Clinton, who arrived for the next term. But he later met both Clintons at Yale Law School, where he graduated in 1971. He clerked for a year for Justice Byron White on the U.S. Supreme Court and then after a year in the Army joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. to work on death penalty cases.
In 1977, he won Coker v. Georgia, a landmark Supreme Court ruling written by White declaring capital punishment unconstitutional for rape. Even after going to work for the celebrated Edward Bennett Williams at the white-shoe firm of Williams & Connolly in 1978, Kendall continued representing death row inmates, including John Spenkelink, who was executed in Florida the next year.
"He's unshakable - not in a stone-faced, stern, 'we're going to beat the pants off these guys' way," said Daniel Dell'Orto, the general counsel for a defense contractor that Kendall represented and helped win a $277 million verdict. "He's just very disarming in his very quiet but firm conveyance that he knows how this will turn out."
Kendall, who with his wife, Anne, a psychologist, has three children and five grandchildren, is a movie buff who reads scripts of films he has not seen and a voracious reader who recites poetry at length. He played chess by mail with death row clients.
He is fascinated by World War I and belongs to a small group that travels every couple of years to European battlefields. Dell'Orto recalled Kendall, at dinner one night, discussing at length the Maginot Line, built after the war.
While at the Supreme Court, Kendall and his fellow clerk, Richard J. Danzig, realized they could not change White's legal views, so they tried "to change the way he viewed life," Danzig recalled. "We began trying to get him to go to the movies or art exhibits, just generally expand his vision of the world. That was largely unsuccessful."
Kendall's biggest moment in the spotlight came during Starr's long-running investigation into the Clintons' Whitewater land dealings and later into whether the president lied under oath to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Not everyone on the Clinton team was happy with Kendall. Some political advisers complained the lawyers withheld information or even misled them, and some viewed Kendall as more worried about a court of law than the court of public opinion.
But the Clintons leaned on Kendall heavily. "He became an anchor in our lives," Hillary Clinton later wrote in a memoir. "David was perfect for the job."
Now she needs him to be again.