C. Boyden Gray: White House Counsel to President G.H.W. Bush

From a Washington Post obit by Luz Lazo headlined “C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President G.H.W. Bush, dies at 80”:

C. Boyden Gray, a patrician conservative lawyer who served as White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush and was influential in shepherding Republican judicial and Justice Department nominees as a strategist and fundraiser, died overnight on May 20 or 21 at his home in Washington.

Raised in a North Carolina family steeped in a fortune from banking and tobacco money and communications holdings, Mr. Gray cut a formidable swath in Washington legal and political circles. A lanky 6-foot-6 with thick brows and a reputed inattention to ironing his dress clothes or mending worn shoes, he developed a reputation as a meticulous lawyer and policy maven with workaholic tendencies.

He had been a clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren, then a leading corporate antitrust lawyer before switching from his family’s ancestral home in the Democratic Party to the Republican side of the aisle. He was swept into the orbit of the incoming Ronald Reagan administration in 1980.

He bonded most closely with Vice President-elect Bush, with whom he shared an Ivy League pedigree and overlapping social connections. Both belonged to the Alibi Club, one of the most exclusive and secretive groups in Washington. Their fathers had once been golfing partners.

Mr. Gray became Bush’s counsel and deputy chief of staff and mostly was known for his work overseeing day-to-day operations of the presidential task force recommending the slashing of government regulations on trade, energy, agriculture, automobiles, prescription drugs, banking, and the environment.

Because of Mr. Gray’s corporate background, his work on the task force was greeted with immense skepticism from consumer advocates. He was persuaded, however, not to weaken disability-related regulations.

Mr. Gray was legal counsel on Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988 and was rewarded with the position of White House counsel after Bush defeated Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor.

His initial transition into the job was complicated by political missteps. In addition to providing legal advice to the president and the White House staff, one of the major functions of chief counsel was overseeing strict ethics compliance with rules directed at the executive branch.

He drew criticism for remaining on the board of his family’s communications company during his years working for the vice president and also for being slow to place his vast wealth into a blind trust. While not technically required of someone on the vice president’s staff, it was an easy point of political attack against the new Bush administration for someone charged with policing ethics rules.

Mr. Gray was also said to have given his approval to the nomination of John G. Tower as defense secretary, despite the former Texas senator’s long-standing reputation as a womanizing alcoholic and his close relations with defense contractors. The defeat of the nomination in the Senate, less than two months into the new administration, marked the first time in decades that a president had been denied a Cabinet choice. (Tower was killed in a plane crash in 1991.)

On palpable display within the White House were growing tensions with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, long one of Bush’s most intimate advisers. As his own portfolio of holdings drew scrutiny — he resigned as chairman of a family corporation — Mr. Gray reportedly leaked to the media that Baker had ample stock in a bank holding loans to developing countries, which could be a potential conflict of interest. Baker soon unloaded his stock.

The Baker-Gray rift never fully healed, and Bush continued to express faith in both men. Mr. Gray continued as chief counsel and helped negotiate amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990. Three years later, he returned to a partnership at his longtime white-shoe firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, to continued work in regulatory law and as a lobbyist for major corporate clients such as Microsoft.

President George W. Bush, the son of his political mentor, named Mr. Gray to a recess appointment as ambassador to the European Union in 2006. After almost two years in the position, Mr. Gray finished out the Bush administration’s second term, first as special envoy for European affairs and then special envoy for Eurasian energy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gray was especially active in right-wing political organizations such as FreedomWorks, which seeks lower taxes and less regulation, and the Federalist Society, a networking group for conservative lawyers. He also helped to start the Committee for Justice, a nonprofit that screens judicial and Justice Department nominees.

He became involved in the judicial nomination fight early in the George W. Bush administration when Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) grew irate after Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2002 blocked a conservative Mississippi trial judge, Charles W. Pickering Sr., from a seat on a federal appeals court. Like Lott, Mr. Gray was furious about filibustering of federal judgeship nominations and worked to end the process.

Although executives and corporations had long sought to avoid entanglement in legal confirmations, Mr. Gray persuaded the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others to open their coffers in nomination battles because the political flavor of the nominee might affect the outcome of costly class-action lawsuits. Mr. Gray got George H.W. Bush to host a cocktail party at his Houston home that hauled in $250,000 for the cause.

The Committee for Justice took a page from liberal interest groups like People for the American Way in its extensive outreach effort to journalists and activists. To address Democratic opposition in the Senate to the 2005 federal appeals court nomination of William H. Pryor Jr., who was known for his harsh views on abortion and gay rights, the Committee for Justice took out a newspaper advertisement claiming “Catholics Need Not Apply” for court appointments.

“Boyden Gray has always represented well the interests of the Bush family and the corporate community,” Ralph G. Neas, then president of People for the American Way, told The Post in 2005. “But with each passing year, he seems more like a Lee Atwater political type than a former White House counsel,” he added, referring to the scorched-earth GOP operative.

As the White House’s top lawyer, he oversaw one of the ugliest confirmation fights ever — for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He was a key backer of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in 2017.

Clayland Boyden Gray, the third of four brothers, was born in Winston-Salem, N.C. He dropped the first name, he later said, because he did not want to be called “Clay Gray.”

His paternal great-grandfather was chief executive of what became Wachovia Bank. His paternal grandfather was chief executive of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. His father was president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and oversaw the family’s newspaper holdings, including two dailies in Winston-Salem, and broadcast outlets in Georgia.

A conservative southern Democrat, Mr. Gray’s father also spent decades in Washington advising the Truman to Ford administrations on national security, defense and foreign intelligence matters.

The younger Mr. Gray described a largely solitary upbringing, a loneliness he attributed to his father’s frequent absence and his mother’s death when he was 10. He was sent away to St. Mark’s, a boarding school in Southborough, Mass., where he said he was “odd man out” as one of the few Southerners on campus.

At Harvard University, despite membership in elite societies and work on the college newspaper, he said he continued as a conservative Southerner to feel ill at ease. He mostly focused on his schoolwork, graduating magna cum laude in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Following a stint in the Marine Corps, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina law school and became editor in chief of the law review. He finished first in his class in 1968, and parlayed a clerkship for Warren into a fledgling career at the politically prestigious Washington law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.

Partner Lloyd N. Cutler became his mentor at the firm, which cultivated trade associations for cars, chemicals and pharmaceuticals among its blue-chip clientele. Mr. Gray became a specialist in antitrust litigation and regulatory law and advanced rapidly to partner.

Mr. Gray left Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now WilmerHale) in 2005, after 25 years with the firm, and founded Boyden Gray & Associates, a firm that represents energy companies and other clients with interests in securities regulation.

A longtime advocate for alternate fuels, Mr. Gray once drove a methanol-powered Chevrolet to make his point. He was also passionate about tennis and was a regular partner of the late Katharine Graham, former chairman of The Washington Post Co.

Although many considered Gray one of the president’s most important advisers, he once said he only had a role in policy when complex legal issues were involved.

“This can be so technical, so esoteric, I’m called in as the translator,” he said.

Luz Lazo is a transportation reporter at The Washington Post covering passenger and freight transportation, buses, taxis and ride-sharing services. She also writes about traffic, road infrastructure and air travel in the Washington region and beyond. She joined The Post in 2011.

Also see the New York Times obit by Alex Traub headlined “C. Boyden Gray, Lawyer for the Republican Establishment, Dies at 80.”

C. Boyden Gray, who personified the conservative legal establishment as a lawyer involved in judicial appointments, policy, diplomacy or fund-raising for every Republican president since Ronald Reagan, died on Sunday at his home in the Georgetown section of Washington.

Mr. Gray reached his highest government position as White House counsel under President George H.W. Bush. He became such a trusted adviser that he was said to be able to stroll into the Oval Office whenever he liked, and he was a frequent subject of palace-intrigue news coverage about the Bush cabinet.

Yet Mr. Gray’s influence stretched beyond any one job. Unlike other Washington conservatives of his generation, he kept in line with ideological shifts in the direction of the Republican Party.

In the Reagan administration, Mr. Gray, as counsel to Mr. Bush when he was vice president, managed an effort to undo federal regulations deemed to be burdensome.

In recent years he did legal work for Donald J. Trump after the 2020 election and, reflecting right-wing concerns over the reach of the federal bureaucracy, donated $3 million to fund an institute at the conservative law school of George Mason University in Virginia — the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.

In 2012, a brief list of “some of the most establishment Republicans around” in The New York Times included figures like the billionaire donor David Koch, the former House majority leader Dick Armey and Mr. Gray. At his death, he was on the board of the Federalist Society, the group dedicated to spreading conservative jurists throughout the federal bench.

From the 1980s to the ’90s, as Mr. Bush’s longest-serving senior aide, Mr. Gray was sometimes accused of being a dilettante and a reckless policy freelancer, particularly in an ill-fated effort to change government regulations around affirmative action. But he could also claim credit for a number of conservative victories.

He promoted the careers of promising young conservative lawyers — including the two-time attorney general William P. Barr and the future Supreme Court justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — and he facilitated the appointments of the two men Mr. Bush put on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas and David H. Souter.

Mr. Gray led the team of Bush advisers who selected Judge Thomas as a candidate to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall upon his retirement in 1991. When Anita Hill accused Judge Thomas of sexual harassment as her supervisor at work, Mr. Gray took charge of the administration’s response by picking apart Ms. Hill’s case, even if that meant attacking her character, The Times reported that year.

Judge Thomas was confirmed by a narrow 52-48 vote in the Senate. Judge Souter’s appointment, in 1990, was less eventful, with the Senate voting to confirm him 90-9.

During the presidency of George W. Bush and in consultation with his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, Mr. Gray formed the Committee for Justice, which seeks to support conservative judicial nominees. He and the liberal civil rights lawyer Ralph G. Neas came to be seen as dueling “commanding generals” in a series of Supreme Court confirmation fights.

In 2005, when President Bush decided to appoint Judge Roberts as the next chief justice, Mr. Rove made sure that one of the first people to know was Mr. Gray.

The next year, Mr. Gray was named U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Amid the strains of the Iraq War, he worked on agreements seeking to open European markets to American goods.

In 2015, Mr. Gray, long considered a loyalist of the Bush family and a notable host on the Washington social scene, held a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser for the presidential campaign of George W. Bush’s brother Jeb Bush.

Three years later, Mr. Gray hosted a dinner for wealthy donors to President Trump, who had ridiculed Jeb Bush during the primaries leading up to the 2016 election. In December 2020, after Mr. Trump was defeated in his bid for re-election, Mr. Gray was recruited to be part of a Trump legal team.

In his public statements, Mr. Gray maintained the politesse of a traditional stalwart of the Grand Old Party. In April, he told The Times that he supported the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason, named after the conservative Supreme Court justice, because it “adds to the debate” as an alternative to more liberal law schools.

Clayland Boyden Gray, who went by Boyden to close friends, was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., to Gordon and Jane Boyden (Craige) Gray. His father was a national security adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and president of the University of North Carolina.

Gordon Gray and Mr. Bush’s father, Senator Prescott Bush, were golf buddies. Their sons played tennis together in what became known as Mr. Bush’s “tennis cabinet.”

Gordon Gray’s father, Bowman, had earned a fortune as president and chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. To comply with ethics requirements as counsel to President Bush, Boyden resigned as chairman of his family’s communications firm, Summit Communications Group, which The Times reported to be worth $500 million in 1989.

Boyden’s mother died in his boyhood. His father then married Nancy Maguire, who was a homemaker. He grew up in Winston-Salem and Washington.

Mr. Gray studied history at Harvard College, graduated in 1964 and served in the Marine Corps Reserve. He graduated at the head of his class from the University of North Carolina’s law school in 1968.

He then clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren, a standard-bearer of liberalism, and considered himself a Democrat until the late 1970s. By then he was a corporate lawyer at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, a prominent Washington firm. He said he became a Republican because he opposed the economic policies of President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Gray married Carol Taylor in 1984, and they divorced a few years later. In addition to their daughter, Eliza, he is survived by two brothers, Bernard and Gordon, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Gray often gave the impression of being aloof or professorial. At 6-foot-6, he loomed above his peers; the Times columnist Maureen Dowd once described him as “bending like a parenthesis.” A penchant for playing bridge with octogenarians earned him a spot on a list of Washington’s “worst bachelors.”

Yet his gentility also worked in his favor. Early in his political career, in 1983, a government official, quoted anonymously, accounted for Mr. Gray’s success in an interview with The Times, saying: “Boyden Gray learned a long time ago that to get ahead in Washington, you’ve got to give your boss credit for the good news and take the blame for what doesn’t work. And he’s learned that lesson well.”

Alex Traub works on the Obituaries desk and occasionally reports on New York City for other sections of the paper.

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