WASHINGTON — Certain law partners no longer call Theodore B. Olson for lunch. Old friends no longer come to dinner at his sprawling house in the woods near the Potomac River. One of his best friends died in December, somewhat estranged.
All since 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.
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 Olson's wife, Lady Booth Olson.
Olson, 72, brushes aside the shunning. The marriage case, the 60th that he will have argued before the nation's highest court, 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. William French Smith picked Olson to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. That made Olson, at 40, the primary constitutional adviser to the president. The two became close, and Olson eventually became President Ronald Reagan's personal lawyer.
But it was the election to replace President Clinton in 2000 that made Ted Olson a conservative hero. He persuaded the Supreme Court in Bush vs. Gore to block a planned re-count of presidential votes in Florida. The legal coup handed the White House to the Republican. Bush rewarded Olson by naming him solicitor general, the government's chief representative at the Supreme Court. The nomination sparked a three-month confirmation battle.
Olson, for his part, says he doesn't think his politics have changed, though he concedes that "I've learned a lot about myself" from the current case. He believes gay marriage is a conservative cause.
"There are libertarian conservatives, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives," he said. "I feel conservative in terms of limited government, individual responsibility, self sufficiency, that sort of thing."
"Why would we (conservatives) be against individuals who wished to live together and have a stable, loving long-term relationship?"