2010 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
Politics might be the underpinning of the life Robert Barnett ’68 and Rita Braver ’70 share together, though when it comes to their careers, they are decidedly undecided. The Washington, D.C.-based couple — he a multifaceted lawyer and she a CBS News correspondent — is committed to representing a variety of individuals and viewpoints to inform and entertain the nation.
Their courtship began in a law school study hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And it nearly ended there.
After their first “study date,” Barnett asked Braver to marry him. She politely declined. “I was dead serious — and crushed when she said no,” Barnett says. But they continued to date. Five years later, he asked her again.
They arrived on the UW campus from different parts of the country. Barnett grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, close to the Wisconsin border. “I had a friend who went to the UW and while visiting her on campus, I fell in love with the place, like everyone does,” he says. “I immediately was struck by the beauty, the grandeur, and the energy of the lakes, the buildings, the hill.”
His love affair lasted until it came time to move in to the dorms. “I had never lived away from home, I hated camp and was not an adventurer,” he says. “The whole idea of living in a dorm was totally alien to me.”
Barnett found solace in several friends from high school and the university’s vast selection of courses. “The first time I put my hands on the Timetable, I thought, how can you choose? It was 300 single-spaced pages of everything the human mind could seek. That’s a striking memory for me.”
Two years later, Braver and her mother took a road trip to Wisconsin from their home in Washington, D.C. Like Barnett, she was instantly smitten with the campus. “It was one of those magical days that you get in Madison. People were sitting out by the lake and it looked like the most fabulous place to be. I went to a class and fell in love with the school,” she says.
Braver and Barnett were both studious undergraduates and enjoyed courses in political science and English. “I have strong memories of academics, but a stronger sense of a place where you were encouraged to think, stretch your intellect and consider possibilities,” Braver says. “It was an exciting time. Feminism was dawning and the campus was dominated by issues surrounding the war in Vietnam. I joined the Daily Cardinal and went to anti-war protests — not so much as a participant, but more as an observer. I always saw myself as a reporter.”
Like Barnett’s father, her parents worked for the federal government. “I grew up being very aware of politics with three newspapers a day delivered to our house,” Braver recalls. “Other kids were memorizing baseball players, and just for fun, my dad had me memorize all the members of the Supreme Court and Kennedy’s cabinet.”
At a young age, she started creating her own newspapers: first in her neighborhood and at camp, then in junior high school. She was the first girl to be named editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper.
Braver was turned down for several newspaper jobs before landing an entry-level position at WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans. Barnett had finished his law degree at the University of Chicago and was clerking for Louisiana federal judge John Minor Wisdom.
The couple married in New Orleans in 1972, and shortly moved to Washington, D.C. after Barnett was offered a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Byron R. White. That led to a spot on the Hill, working for U.S. Senator Walter Mondale — and a lifelong interest in politics. Barnett has since worked on eight national presidential campaigns.
Braver’s star was also rising. She joined CBS’s Washington Bureau as a news desk editor, producing and reporting shows such as CBS Evening News, 48 Hours, and Face the Nation. In 1983, she became the network’s law correspondent, and her coverage for the CBS Evening News included controversial issues such as the Iran Contra case, abortion, civil rights, and organized crime. As chief White House correspondent, she followed President Bill Clinton throughout the 1996 presidential campaign.
“When it was time to leave the White House, I said I wanted to work for Sunday Morning. The head of CBS news almost fainted, because I had always been a hard news reporter,” Braver says. ”I told him, these are the things I’m really interested in. Turns out, it’s the perfect place for me.”
Braver reports on topics ranging from arts and entertainment to politics and foreign policy. Her work has earned five Emmy Awards, including two for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. She received the Joan Barone Award presented by the Congressional Radio and Television Correspondents Association for a story on foster care.
Barnett is currently a senior partner at the firm Williams & Connolly LLP. Although most of his practice involves representing corporations like Toyota, McDonald’s and Comcast, he is also one of the world’s top author representatives. He has negotiated successful book contracts for a clientele list that includes Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton, Lynne Cheney, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Tony Blair. He has represented countless senators, congressmen, and presidents, as well as more than 350 television news correspondents and producers, including Brian Williams, Lesley Stahl, and, of course, Rita Braver.
“Every day is different and every day is a challenge. I never know who’s going to call next,” he says. “I don't know that I would love being a lawyer if I didn’t have the practice I have.”
Barnett was named one of the 100 most powerful people in the entertainment business by Entertainment Weekly. And in 2004, he was ranked number one on Washingtonian Magazine’s list of “Washington’s Best Lawyers.”
Though Braver is on the road for CBS News 150 days a year, the couple tries to make an annual trip to Wisconsin. They also give back to the university through their service on the Board of Visitors for the Department of Political Science.
Barnett and Braver’s next collaboration is that of grandparents: their daughter Meredith is expecting her first child in May. Barnett describes the impending arrival as “the next big deal I’m looking forward to.”