A conservative champion transformed by gay rights case


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WASHINGTON

Certain law partners no longer call Theodore Olson for lunch. Old friends no longer come to dinner at his sprawling house in the woods near the Potomac. One of his best friends died in December, somewhat estranged.

All since Mr. Olson -- the conservative legal icon, crusader against Bill and Hillary Clinton, defender of George W. Bush -- signed on to fight for same-sex marriage in California, a battle that he will take to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, when he challenges Proposition 8, the state measure that banned gay marriage.

Mr. Olson and his co-counsel will argue that gays and lesbians should have an equal right to marry, a view that, if shared by the justices in a ruling after Tuesday's hearing, would not only strike down the California ban but make gay marriage legal nationwide.

"They feel a little rebuffed, that their leader has turned on them," said Mr. Olson's wife, Lady Booth Olson.

Theodore Olson, 72, brushes aside the shunning. The marriage case has been a transformative experience, he says. He speaks with passion, and sometimes a tear, about the gay men and women, including Republicans, who reach out to thank him.

"Oh, there's some people who are not very happy about it," he said in a recent interview. But the case "has changed my life a lot because I think this is so enormously important to so many people. When I talk about it, I get very emotional. ... I found out that some people I never guessed were gay. Lawyers came up to me and disclosed that about themselves."

Born in Chicago; raised in Los Altos, Calif., in an "Ozzie & Harriet family"; a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school, Ted Olson has been at the center of legal and political battles for more than three decades.

He came to Washington during the Reagan administration when a partner in his Los Angeles law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, became attorney general. William French Smith picked Mr. Olson to head the department's Office of Legal Counsel. Mr. Olson eventually became President Ronald Reagan's personal lawyer.

Among Reagan-era hard-liners, some had regarded Mr. Olson as ideologically soft. But after Bill Clinton's presidential election in 1992, he increasingly was drawn into political battle. His identity as a conservative warrior rose as he wooed, and eventually married, Barbara Bracher, another Washington lawyer who became lead counsel in several House investigations of the White House and engaged in what she called "entrenched warfare" with the administration, especially Hillary Clinton.

After the two married, Ted Olson joined the board of the American Spectator. Mr. Olson gave the magazine legal advice and wrote several denunciations of the Democratic administration.

Barbara Olson, meanwhile, was writing books attacking Hillary Clinton and frequently appeared on Fox News as an anti-Clinton commentator.

But it was the election to replace President Clinton in 2000 that made Mr. Olson a conservative hero. He persuaded the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore to block a planned re-count of presidential votes in Florida. Mr. Bush rewarded Mr. Olson by naming him solicitor general, the government's chief representative at the Supreme Court. The nomination sparked a three-month confirmation battle. Worse lay ahead.

On Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after 9 a.m., Mr. Olson was in his Justice Department office preparing for the Supreme Court term that would begin in a few weeks. Barbara called, sounding anguished. She was on an American Airlines flight to Los Angeles.

The plane had been hijacked, Barbara said, and she asked what she should do. The call was cut off. She called back, staying on the line long enough for them to exchange quick words of love. Ten minutes later, the plane crashed into the Pentagon.

Mr. Olson went home to grieve, surrounded by his closest friends.

"It was one of those things that you have to decide whether it's going to be disabling or not, how you are going to live with it, whether you are going to curl up in a corner someplace or whether you are going to move forward," Mr. Olson said.

He stuck to his work, delivering his arguments to the court on schedule. Seven months after Barbara's death, he started dating Lady Booth.

It is a matter of discussion how much Mr. Olson has changed since his marriage to Lady Booth and whether that has anything to do with his apostasy on gay marriage.

Mr. Olson, for his part, says he doesn't think his politics have changed.

But, according to one Olson friend, "there are a lot of people who are very unhappy" about his views.

Lady Booth Olson said Washington critics have confused cause and effect. Her husband didn't change to handle the case, she said; rather, the case changed him.

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