C. Boyden Gray, who personified the conservative legal establishment as a lawyer involved in legal strategy, judicial appointments, policy, diplomacy or fund-raising for every Republican president since Ronald Reagan, died on Sunday at his home in the Georgetown section of Washington. He was 80.
The cause was heart failure, his daughter, Eliza Gray, said.
Mr. Gray reached his highest government position as White House counsel under President George H.W. Bush. He became a trusted adviser said to be able to stroll into the Oval Office whenever he liked, and he was the frequent subject of palace-intrigue news coverage about Mr. Bush’s cabinet.
Yet Mr. Gray’s influence stretched beyond any particular job. Unlike other Washington conservatives of his generation, he kept in line with shifts in the political directionof the Republican Party.
In the Reagan administration, Mr. Gray — then counsel to Mr. Bush during his tenure as vice president — managed an effort to undo federal regulations deemed to be burdensome.
In recent years he did legal work for Donald J. Trump after the 2020 election and donated $3 million to fund an institute at the conservative law school of George Mason University — the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.
In 2012, a brief list of “some of the most establishment Republicans around” in The New York Times featured figures like the billionaire donor David Koch, the former House majority leader Dick Armey — and Mr. Gray. At his death, he was a member of the board of the Federalist Society, the group dedicated to spreading conservative jurists across the federal bench.
From the 1980s to the 1990s, as Mr. Bush’s longest-serving senior aide, he was sometimes accused of being a dilettante and reckless policy freelancer, particularly in an ill-fated effort to change government regulations around affirmative action. But he could also claim credit for a number of conservative victories.
He promoted the careers of promising young conservative lawyers — including the two-time attorney general William P. Barr and the future Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito — and he facilitated the appointments of the two men Mr. Bush put on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas and David Souter.
He led the team of advisers for Mr. Bush who selected Mr. Thomas as a candidate to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall upon his retirement in 1991. When Anita Hill accused Mr. Thomas of sexual harassment as her supervisor at work, Mr. Gray took charge in deciding to respond by picking apart Ms. Hill’s case, even if that meant attacking her character, The Times reported that year.
Mr. Thomas was confirmed by a narrow 52-48 vote in the Senate. Mr. Souter’s appointment, in 1990, was less eventful, with the Senate voting to confirm him 90-9.
During the presidency of George W. Bush and in consultation with Mr. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, Mr. Gray formed the Committee for Justice, which seeks to support conservative judicial nominees. He and the liberal civil rights lawyer Ralph G. Neas came to be seen as dueling “commanding generals” in a series of Supreme Court confirmation fights.
In 2005, when President Bush decided to appoint Mr. Roberts as the next chief justice, Mr. Rove made sure that one of the first people to know would be Mr. Gray.
The next year, Mr. Gray became the ambassador of the United States to the European Union. Amid strain over the Iraq War he worked on agreements about global trade, seeking to open European markets to American goods.
Clayland Boyden Gray was born on Feb. 6, 1943, in Winston-Salem, N.C. His father, Gordon, was a national security adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and president of the University of North Carolina.
Gordon and Mr. Bush’s father, Prescott, were golf buddies. Their sons played tennis together in what became known as Mr. Bush’s “tennis cabinet.”
Gordon Gray’s father, Bowman, earned a fortune as president and chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. To comply with ethics requirements as counsel to President Bush, Boyden resigned as chairman of his family’s communications firm, Summit Communications Group, which The Times reported to be worth $500 million in 1989.
Boyden’s mother, Jane Boyden Craige, died in his boyhood. His father then married Nancy Maguire, who was a homemaker. He grew up in Winston-Salem and Washington.
He studied history at Harvard College, graduated in 1964 and served in the Marine Corps Reserve. He graduated at the head of his class from the University of North Carolina’s law school in 1968.
He clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren, a standard-bearer of liberalism, and he considered himself a Democrat until the late 1970s. By then, he was a corporate lawyer at the prominent Washington firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. He said he became a Republican because he opposed the economic policies of President Jimmy Carter.
He married Carol Taylor in 1984, and they divorced a few years later. In addition to their daughter, Eliza Gray, he is survived by two brothers, Bernard and Gordon, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Gray often gave the impression of being aloof or professorial. At 6-foot-6, he loomed above his peers; the Times reporter Maureen Dowd once described him as “bending like a parenthesis.” A penchant for playing bridge with octogenarians earned him a spot on a list of Washington’s “worst bachelors.”
Yet his gentility also worked in his favor. Early in his political career, in 1983, an anonymous government official accounted for his success in an interview with The Times as follows: “Boyden Gray learned a long time ago that to get ahead in Washington, you’ve got to give your boss credit for the good news and take the blame for what doesn’t work. And he’s learned that lesson well.”
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