He’s showing up everywhere these days – on the Sunday morning political television shows, the network evening news, the 24-hour news channels.
And hours after President Clinton admitted to the nation Monday night he had a relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky, GW Law School Professor Jonathan Turley was back in front of the camera.
“The speech did not change his legal position,” Turley said on NBC News’ “Today” Tuesday. “The president remains in legal jeopardy.”
In seven months, Turley has become a celebrity – the go-to guy for media organizations who want a camera-friendly legal source to describe the law surrounding the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. He was featured on the front page of The Washington Post’s Style section and has been the source of numerous quotes and countless sound bites. But he takes his new-found fame in stride.
“I wouldn’t call the last seven months a wonderful experience for anyone,” 37-year-old Turley said outside NBC studios, the fragrance of television makeup lingering from his morning appearance. “Nobody likes talking about the president’s private life, even in legal terms and how they relate to constitutional issues.”
On television, Turley shares his keen knowledge of and infatuation with the law, interpreting the legal ins and outs of the accusations against the president.
“How we handle this can set the precedent for future generations,” he said. “We have a president accused of criminal acts. We have to be careful how we address that issue to send the right message to future presidents.”
His broad background in the law, packaged with a pleasant face and a style that condenses broad legal issues into layman’s terms have made him a household name.
“He’s good TV,” said Susan LaSalla, “Today”‘s senior Washington producer. “It’s one-stop shopping. He fills what we need.
“The way we pick people is based on whether they can be able to stand alone or oppose another guest. Jonathan can do both of those,” LaSalla said.
“He’s young, attractive, intelligent and he comes across as very passionate about his beliefs,” GW public affairs specialist Karen Sibert said.
GW’s public affairs office refers as many as 10 media requests a week to Turley, Sibert said.
“He’s established a good relationship with the media through his environmental projects, so he’s a known entity,” she said.
Turley has represented grand jurors in Denver who accused the government of hiding environmental criminal violations at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility. The group was the first grand jury to speak publicly and the first to file as a litigant in federal court.
He also represents workers at Area 51, a secret U.S. Air Force base in Nevada, who accuse the government of environmental criminal violations that may have killed two workers.
Turley has worked for all three branches of the federal government – he clerked for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and worked in Congress and the National Security Agency. He also has litigated cases at every level of federal court, including the Supreme Court.
Turley insists his life has not changed since the Clinton controversy began – that he continues to litigate and run the Shapiro Environmental Law Clinic and the Project for Older Prisoners at GW. And the professor modestly says he does not know how he became the be-all and end-all of legal sources.
Turley has been more than just a commentator on Kenneth Starr’s investigation into the Lewinsky matter. He represented four former U. S. attorneys general who filed an amicus brief against protective privilege for Secret Service officers who testified in front of the grand jury. And he has written numerous editorial pieces for major newspapers about the importance of the issue.
But while Turley’s face has popped up often on television shows, he is selective about the type of shows on which he appears.
“There are a fairly significant number of shows that I don’t do,” Turley said. “I prefer shows that allow more time to discuss the substance of issues.
“I tend to avoid the dog fighting shows, in which commentators do a version of legal professional wrestling,” Turley said. “These are serious questions and they deserve serious commentary.”
Maybe that is why Turley always seems to appear Sunday mornings. The longer weekend public affairs shows provide a chance for newsmakers and analysts to ask and answer thought-provoking, investigative questions.
“The nice thing about the Sunday shows is that you have 15 minutes to delve into some substantive questions,” he said.
Turley wants his life to consist of more than television. He has turned down offers to become a regular commentator on network programs in order to concentrate on his current pursuits .
“I haven’t accepted any contracts with any of the networks,” he said. “I remain an academic and a public interest lawyer.”
But for a public interest lawyer who has reached the pinnacle of his profession before the age of 40, television offers a new way to communicate.
“As an academic, it is challenging to talk about some of these issues and reach a large segment of the population,” Turley said.
“There are similarities between TV commentary and classroom teaching,” he said. “When you’re able to convey a substantive point, you feel the same sense of satisfaction.”
But for now, he does not want that satisfaction to run his life. Television is just part of who Jonathan Turley is, and he’s fine with that.
“I’m fairly confident that I will be able to return to obscurity where I belong when this crisis ends.”