The Rhodes scholar’s “relentless focus on the facts, the law, and the constitution” saved Bill Clinton’s Presidency. Now that his most famous client has departed the White House, what’s on the mind of the man many call “the smartest lawyer in Washington?”


Fall/Winter 2001

30 Minutes with David Kendall

by Jim Amidon

No Wabash College alumnus has been more involved in late 20th-century United States history than David E. Kendall.

He’s been in and out of the national media spotlight since he graduated from Wabash in 1966—even before, when he spent the summer of 1964 with Freedom Riders registering African-American voters in Mississippi.

The College’s last Rhodes Scholarship recipient earned a master’s degree in English literature at Oxford University. He earned his law degree at Yale in 1971, where he met Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton and developed a friendship that would continue over the next 30 years.

He completed a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Byron White the following year. After a tour on active duty in the Army, Kendall began work as a civil rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1973 and litigated several anti-capital punishment cases. He argued successfully before the Supreme Court in the 1977 landmark case Coker v. Georgia, a decision that forbade the death penalty for non-murder crimes on the basis that it was “grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment."

His belief that the death penalty “demeans society” compelled his defense of murderers Gary Gilmore, John Spenkelink, and others. While Gilmore agreed to be executed, Spenkelink, whose appeal was driven by Kendall, was the first person involuntarily put to death in the United States in 12 years. In a 1979 speech at Wabash, a youthful Kendall argued that Americans only put up with the death penalty because it was done under a “cloak of secrecy.” He also predicted that, by the turn of the century, the death penalty would be abolished on moral grounds.

He joined the high-powered Washington law practice of Williams & Connolly in 1978, a firm known for its discretion. Kendall worked closely with senior partner Edward Bennett Williams and began a long career of First Amendment defense. His clients included publications ranging from the National Enquirer to the National Review, from Playboy to the Washington Post. Kendall led the Post’s successful 1985 defense in a $1.8 million libel suit brought by Mobil Oil President William Tavoulareas. The U.S. Court of Appeals judge who wrote the decision in the 7-1 appellate victory for the Post was none other than Kenneth Starr.

Kendall is known as a voracious reader and has been dubbed the “busiest” and “smartest” lawyer in Washington. And he may be the beltway’s quietest major player. He had been President Clinton’s attorney for months before anyone outside Williams & Connolly knew it. Only when the White House announced that the documents from the late Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster’s former office had been moved to Kendall’s office did the world find out that he was representing the First Couple.

Steve Umin, a W&C senior partner, once publicly questioned what the Whitewater and subsequent impeachment trials had done to Kendall’s personal life. Kendall and his wife, Anne, a psychologist, are the parents of three children—Matthew, Elizabeth, and Will. He credits his family with keeping his ego in check during the media circus that enveloped his life in the late 1990s.

With Whitewater and impeachment largely behind him, Kendall has once again stepped into the spotlight. His latest interest lies in intellectual property issues with regard to the new media, the Internet, and the protection of original, creative materials on CDs, DVDs, and the Internet.

Wabash Magazine has been anxious to talk with Kendall since his last visit to Wabash for a lecture on politics and the media in early 1995. The events of the last six years led us to wait for an interview until Kendall returned in early September for his 35th class reunion. Wabash Director of Public Affairs Jim Amidon ’87 sat down to talk with him just three days before the tragic terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

“It was immediately clear that Kendall has a real fondness for Wabash and likes to return when his schedule permits, and that everything we’ve read about him in terms of intellect is true,” Amidon says. “He is also said to be a lousy interview because he’s so discreet, but I found him to be perfectly open and engaging. Knowing he wouldn’t violate attorney-client privilege, we chose not to focus on President Clinton, and instead asked a wide range of questions we thought the average Wabash alumnus would want to ask.”

Proceed to the interview

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