Profile: The President's pit bull: Mickey Kantor is no trade expert, but he knows how to fight. David Usborne reports

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The Independent Online
HAD PRESIDENT Bill Clinton placed a small advertisement in his search for a chief trade negotiator, it might have read rather strangely. 'Urgently seeking Democrat to manage US foreign trade during critical times. Must be capable of securing Nafta, salvaging Gatt. Good terms. Travel. No experience required.'

Mickey Kantor, the man Clinton in fact chose, would have answered these requirements splendidly. A long-standing Democratic Party insider and leading Los Angeles lawyer, he came to the job with one qualification that caught many by surprise: he knew next to nothing about international trade.

That, however, did not prevent him from making some strikingly belligerent statements about the possibility of trade wars during his visits last week to London and Brussels. His remarks have grabbed the headlines and sent shivers down the spines of European trade negotiators. He has, at a stroke, stirred up unwelcome antagonisms, but has nevertheless galvanised the sluggish process of trade negotiations.

So, 10 weeks into the new US administration, what are we to make of Kantor? He may be unfamiliar with the trading system, but other qualities are clear to see: a disarming charm, an almost brutal determination to get his way in negotiations and, not unimportant, an open channel to the President and First Lady.

It is not as if Kantor was picked out of the blue. A compact man of 53 years charged with nervous energy and indulging a penchant for wearing braces, he is an old friend - and ardent fan - of the Clintons, having met Hillary when they both joined the board of the Legal Services Corporation under Jimmy Carter. Even then, he now says, he recognised Bill Clinton as 'presidential timbre'.

And on the West Coast, his is hardly an unfamiliar name. Before answering Bill Clinton's call, he was a millionaire partner in the influential law firm, Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor, which has a long track record of handling international commercial cases. It has, for example, represented Japanese and European banks seeking to take over American financial institutions and equally supported US manufacturers trying to beat off foreign competition for contracts, such as supplying rolling stock for the Los Angeles underground.

It is not a history that gives much clue as to Kantor's philosophy, if indeed he has one, on trade policy. He himself did not handle any of the international cases. Nor do some of those that he did take on necessarily commend him as a moderate liberal or even a Democrat.

His local fame stems primarily, for instance, from work on behalf of Occidental Petroleum in its unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful bid in 1988 for rights to drill close to the California coast. That battle brought him into direct combat with the environmental lobby and with many of his friends and neighbours. He also surprised many by taking up the cause of Philip Morris in challenging no-smoking ordinances in Beverly Hills.

There has been much more to Kantor's life, however, than defending corporate profits. His interest in public service was seeded when he was a child growing up Nashville, Tennessee, where his parents had a furniture store. His father, Henry, was a member of the local school board and in 1954 took up the cause of ending school segregation in the city. He was eventually thrown off the board by a resistant mayor's office. For his son, Mickey, the confrontation was a searing experience that left a deep impression.

After receiving law degrees from Georgetown University in 1967, the first stop for Kantor and his new wife, Valerie, was southern Florida, where the couple helped set up the South Florida Migrant Labour Services, a body committed to giving legal aid to migrant workers. From that beginning, he built up the legal career that finally took him to California 19 years ago.

In the interim, he experienced terrible personal tragedy. In 1978, Valerie Kantor was killed in a plane crash over San Diego. Ten years later, a teenage son was killed in a car accident in Santa Monica.

'Those times were devastating for Mickey,' says Mark Siegel, a long-time friend and now a Democratic consultant in Washington, who offers one insight into the compassionate side of Kantor. Recalling his grief on losing a son of his own in 1974, he says it was Kantor, of all his friends, who first came to his side. 'Most people shy away from trying to console a parent over the loss of a child because they can't deal with it. He didn't'

There is also a hidden passion in Kantor: baseball. As a student he even pondered going into the sport as a professional. His elder brother, Carl, who played a season for the Detroit Tigers B-team, remembers that Mickey's desire to be on the field at all times as a child could sometimes be tiresome. 'If you didn't want him to play, you had to run him off. You practically had to pick him up and carry him home,' he said recently.

It may not be stretching a point too far to conclude that Mickey Kantor's tenacious negotiating style may have been born partly from the competitiveness instilled by baseball. European trade officials - especially Sir Leon Brittan, the EC External Trade Commissioner - might be advised to take note of a confession made by Kantor in an interview last year. 'I am a bad loser,' he said. 'I am the worst loser you ever met in your life. I get mad.'

First called upon by Clinton last year to be his campaign chairman, Kantor already had long, mostly dispiriting experience of Democratic presidential politics. He was state chairman in California for both Carter and Walter Mondale during their doomed White House bids in 1980 and 1984 respectively. He also worked in unsuccessful presidential and senate campaigns for the former California governor, Jerry Brown, with whom he subsequently had a bitter falling-out.

Credited with devising the strategy that allowed Clinton to survive allegations of infidelity at the start of last year's campaign, Kantor also won praise much later in the race for seemingly getting the better of the formidable former Secretary of State, James Baker, in negotiating the terms of the television debates with George Bush. And such was his frustration with New York's traffic during the Democratic National Convention in July, he reportedly ditched his official limousine in favour of a chauffeur-driven moped.

Older than any other of Clinton's youthful advisers, Kantor was said to have alienated many of them during the campaign with his direct, pushy manner. And when victory came, his unappealing reputation as a lawyer-lobbyist, and a ruthless one at that, is said to have swayed Clinton against picking him for the post he really wanted, that of White House Chief of Staff.

And so it is that he was given the office of the United States Trade Representative. As to Kantor's ignorance on the subject, Clinton sought advice on whether that would prove a handicap and was advised that several past representatives, including Carla Hills who served George Bush, also took on the job with a clean slate and proved fast learners.

Clinton himself laid out the qualifications he considered important when he announced Kantor's appointment last Christmas Eve. 'This task requires a negotiator of consummate skill, someone with political savvy and the absolute confidence of the President,' he declared. Kantor scores on all three points.

Already, he has engaged Europe in disputes over steel exports and subsidies to Airbus. And his trip to Brussels last week was devoted principally to agreeing a three-week truce in the row over alleged discrimination against American firms competing for European Community utilities contracts. This has left Sir Leon well appraised of Kantor's aggressive style.

'There was a fair bit of bumping in Brussels this week, I can tell you,' one EC aide acknowledges. 'Mr Kantor obviously likes to push and see how far he can go and we just have to push back.' Kantor's relationship with Sir Leon will be critical. The fact that they both have Lithuanian roots is a coincidence that may not necessarily make them instant friends.

On the broader front, the Clinton administration has so far given greater priority to concluding the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) with Mexico and Canada than to rescuing the troubled Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). Kantor's warmongering in the bilateral disputes has led many to question the Clinton administration's avowed commitment to free trade and to saving Gatt from disaster.

The least flattering assessment is that Kantor has so far seemed to specialise in 'unilateral bullying' - Sir Leon's choice of words - because he has no wider view on trade policy. And if the administration as a whole has a coherent outlook on trade, the critics add, it will not have been formulated by Kantor but by Clinton himself, with his Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, and the chairman of his National Economic Council, Robert Rubin.

But that may be to underestimate Kantor's intellectual ability - and his closeness to the President. If it is true, though, America's trading partners can only hope that he is an attack- dog who is capable not just of biting but also of delivering an occasional nuzzle and affectionate lick.

(Photograph omitted)