Washington lawyer is tasting true celebrity, thanks to Colbert bump

Stephen Colbert (center) and Jon Stewart (right) hold hands during &quotThe Colbert Report" as Trevor Potter looks on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, in New York.
Kristopher Long | AP
Stephen Colbert (center) and Jon Stewart (right) hold hands during "The Colbert Report" as Trevor Potter looks on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, in New York.
Posted Jan. 18, 2012, at 11:29 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Trevor Potter is a buttoned-down Washington lawyer who has advised Republican presidential candidates from George H.W. Bush to John McCain.

But Potter, 56, is now tasting real celebrity by trading banter — and giving legal advice — to comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, all while injecting humor into the GOP nominating process.

Colbert formed a super PAC, a group that can collect unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals and run ads supporting a candidate, so long as it does not coordinate with the candidate or the candidate’s campaign.

“The Colbert Report” star has expressed interest in running for president of “the United States of South Carolina” as the state prepares for its primary Saturday. Because Colbert is a potential candidate, he has separated himself from his super PAC, handing over control to fellow Comedy Central star Stewart.

Both comedians have been getting laughs by seeking on-air legal advice from Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

Potter’s pedigree would not suggest such a wacky pop culture role. He attended the Latin School of Chicago, earned a Harvard University degree in 1978 and graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1982.

His late father, Charles S. “Charlie” Potter, long headed Chicago’s Union Stockyards when it was the world’s busiest cattle market. His mother, Barbara McClurg Potter, is a great-great-niece of William B. Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor.

Potter said he was at a reception at the National Gallery of Art when a gray-haired man studying him asked, “Excuse me, aren’t you Stephen Colbert’s lawyer?”

“It’s not what I’m used to in Washington,” Potter said, chuckling.

Potter said Colbert met him through an attorney who had appeared on the program. “There is that cool factor to it, which is all a big surprise to me,” said Potter, now a presence on YouTube. “I did not appreciate the level of following [Colbert] has and the intensity until I got in it.”

Potter, with the Caplin & Drysdale law firm, said he has landed in “a funny double role” since he’s working as Colbert’s attorney and frequently appearing as a guest on his show to explain campaign-finance law.

The comedian’s genius, Potter said, is translating “what is inherently a complicated legal issue into a four- or five-minute description that causes even seasoned professionals to say, ‘Oh, now I get it.’”

Washington attorney Jan Baran, who has known Potter for years, noted that most lawyers have lower profiles. “How often,” Baran mused, “does a lawyer get to have some celebrity status that doesn’t involve a criminal client?”

According to Baran, when Potter is away from work, he enjoys travel, horticulture and fox hunting. Baran said Potter, who is a Republican, told him he was a page at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Matea Gold of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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