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Life After the Ivory Coast

Lanny Davis's book party was a beacon of bipartisanship. Just don't mention Laurent Gbagbo.

Getty Images/Leigh Vogel

We all know how difficult it is these days to find moments of bipartisan comity in our polarized capital. Heck, even the good folks at Fix the Debt seem to have faded from the scene. So it was gratifying indeed to attend an event Tuesday night that stood as a beacon of all that Washington once was and could yet be, if we could only learn to get along again: Lanny Davis's book party.

Davis has remade himself from the partisan fighter of his days as counsel to a besieged second-term President Clinton into a champion of Washington bonhomie. Last year, he started a lobbying firm defined by its bipartisan colors: Purple Nation Solutions, co-founded with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. Likewise, the launch party for his book—Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life—was organized as a coming together of both sides of the aisle. There was Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—and there was the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings! There was Rep. Chaka Fattah, Democrat of Philadelphia; and there was Grover Norquist, with, as Davis put it, "his absolutely beautiful and incredibly intelligent wife." And it wouldn't be a bipartisan bash without Ted Olson, the solicitor general under George W. Bush and now an advocate for gay marriage.

You may scoff that this was a mere Potemkin spectacle, that there is no real constituency anymore for such bipartisan fellowship. Ah, but you would be mistaken. So many people RSVP'd for the event that it was moved from the Oval Room to a larger space, upstairs at the Hamilton restaurant. Among the crowd of well-wishers: Sheldon Hochberg (Steptoe & Johnson), Adam Goldberg (Trident Advisors), Rick Hindin (Adworks), Iden Martyn (Cozen O'Connor), Kai Niedermair (Emerson Defense Solutions), Wes Pippert (The Fairfax Group), Ike Brannon (R Street Institute), David Kirstein (Kirstein & Young), Wayne Gray (Holland & Knight), Jim Albertine (JJ&B, past president of the American League of Lobbyists), Paul Hidalgo (General Dynamics), Michael McManus (DinkerBiddle), and Jason Maloni (Levick).

All of them in one room: It was a heartening sight. I asked Issa, who was nursing a glass of red wine (a "well-balanced pinot noir," reported a member of the press unburdened by a notepad) why he thought so many had turned out for the event. "Lanny is a piece of history in that he has been a part of crises and of comebacks, he's been a part of partisan politics and bipartisan politics," Issa said. "And the crisis right now is a lack of people willing to find a solution."

But of course, being willing to step forward as part of that group carried some risks in a town as divided as ours. Jim Wholey, a partner at Dilworth Paxson, where Davis also has a perch, alluded to this in his remarks as official host of the event: "We're grateful that you could come out and braved the snowstorm and the risk of being added to the White House enemies list." This, of course, was a reference to Davis' alarming disclosure last week that he, like Bob Woodward, had been threatened by the Obama administration for daring to challenge it publicly. Steele sounded a similar note in his remarks to the crowd, noting the courage in Davis's new stance and wondering whether Washington might be in a better place now had Davis broadcast his message years earlier: "If we all knew that it would take Lanny writing a book to bring the right and left together he should have done this years ago and certainly we could have had a very different outcome in terms of the noise level." After praiseworthy remarks from Issa and Cummings, it was time for the author himself, beaming proudly in a slightly rumpled pinstripe suit. He kept up the bipartisan theme, declaring that while he himself was a "good liberal Democrat, except for on the deficit," he was now out to "prove that you can disagree and still find common solutions."

It was all so uplifting, but unfortunately there was an elephant in the room. Davis made unflattering headlines in late 2010 when it became public that among his crisis-management clients was Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivory Coast strongman who refused to leave office after losing an election for president and instead presided over armed clashes in the streets that killed 3,000 people. That Davis accepted the Gbagbo account (for $100,000 per month) should perhaps not have surprised, given his willingness to work with other unpopular clients (a list that includes, as the New York Times put it, "coup supporters in Honduras, a dictator in Equatorial Guinea, for-profit colleges accused of exploiting students, and a company that dominates the manufacture of additives for infant formula.") But the matter nonetheless caused a stir, leading Davis to withdraw from the contract. Gbagbo is now facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, making him the first former head of state to appear at the Hague-based court.

Nobody was tactless enough to allude to the Ivory Coast matter in their comments at the party (the Washingtonian also did not see fit to mention it in a recent glowing feature on Davis) though a few of the encomiums to Davis had unfortunate double entendres, such as this from Elijah Cummings: "You're trying to make a big difference for the entire world." But I did have the temerity to ask some of the attendees about it, including Issa, who dismissed it as a "bump in the road." "Everyone in this town has had a representation that they might not have had, in retrospect," he said.

Davis, to his credit, addresses the Gbagbo contract in his book, alongside his more successful crisis-consulting work for the likes of Martha Stewart, Royal Caribbean, Charlie Rangel, Trent Lott and Washington Redskins' owner Dan Snyder. When I finally got through the long line of people waiting for him to sign his book for them, I asked Davis about Ivory Coast and his decision to deal with it in the book. His celebratory good cheer instantly evaporated. "It was the most painful 10 days of my life," he said.

But unlike those 3,000 Ivorians, he survived to tell the tale. It's available for $27.00 at a bookstore near you, and has a nice blurb from Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis