Obituary: Clark Clifford

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CLARK CLIFFORD never held elected office. His one spell in the Cabinet, as Defense Secretary, lasted less than a year. He spent the last eight years of his life in near ignominy, caught up in the biggest banking scandal of the decade. And yet, for more than 40 years, he was a leading player in America's theatre of political power, a shaper of momentous decisions and, along the way, the inventor of a new Washington species: the lawyer- lobbyist-interceder who thrives at the intersection of politics, business and government bureaucracy.

In his prime he was a magnificent spectacle. If his mind was a razor, his voice was a caressing, rounded purr. His dress was never less than perfect. With his patrician and courtly bearing, the curly silver hair always immaculately groomed, he looked more of a President than the nine men who held the job during his years on the Washington stage.

His office on the corner of Lafayette Square with its view of the White House through the window was - during Democratic Presidencies at least - acknowledged as one of the capital's great centres of influence. Clifford himself never saw it that way: "If you want influence, look elsewhere," he would tell new clients. "What we can offer is extensive knowledge of how to deal with the government on your problems, and advice on how best to present your position to the appropriate departments and agencies."

Of course there was more to it than that. It was Clifford who could have a quiet word with a key committee chairman on Capitol Hill, or impress a friendly journalist with the merits of a client's case, or put that client in touch with someone who could pilot his company through the federal bureaucracy. Clifford's contemporary equivalents are the likes of Vernon Jordan and Lloyd Cutler. Had he been 20 years younger he, not they, would probably have been enlisted by Bill Clinton to help in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

But Clifford was not only the smoothest of operator. His career for long spells reads like a reflected history of the Cold War. Like Dean Acheson, George Marshall and Averell Harriman, he belonged to that select club of officials who were, to borrow Acheson's phrase, "there at the creation", advisers and participants in the decisions which shaped the modern world.

Typically, he arrived in that inner circle through the back door. Clifford spent most of his early life in St Louis, where his father was an official on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. There he studied at law school and joined a local law firm. Within a decade he was one of the city's leading attorneys and, had it not been for the Second World War and enlistment in the US Naval Reserve, he might have remained as such for ever.

In 1945 Clifford was posted to Washington as assistant to an old friend, Harry Vardaman, who happened to be naval attache to the new President, Harry Truman. His ascent was rapid. The following year he succeeded Vardaman as naval aide, and in June 1946 Truman appointed him as his special counsel, with the job, as Clifford later wrote, of doing "whatever the President wanted". His value, Truman was among the first to discover, was as facilitator and adviser, not administrator or bureaucrat.

Despite the difference of generation, the two men, patron and protege, grew close. Clifford was a frequent dinner companion. Even more important, he learnt to play a decent game of poker, Truman's cherished pastime on his frequent weekend cruises on the Williamsburg, the Presidential yacht. "Some of the boys and I were playing a little poker," Truman would tell reporters with a candour unthinkable now, admitting also that Kentucky bourbon was the preferred lubricant of their labours. But all the while historic choices were being made.

Clifford was involved in the discussions which led to the Marshall Plan, and the creation of the state of Israel. He helped fashion the 1947 National Security Act which set up the CIA and a unified Department of Defense. Most famously, as relations with Moscow chilled, he was commissioned by Truman as co-author of the Clifford-Elsey report, listing Soviet violations of international agreements. When Truman read it he was horrified, telling Clifford that a leak would "blow the roof off the White House, blow the roof off the Kremlin". The President ordered all 20 copies of the document to be given to him. They were never seen again. But the report contributed to the Truman Doctrine, committing all of America's resources to shore up democracies against the advance of Communism. Thus was born Clark Clifford the Cold War warrior.

There were of course lighter moments. One came in March 1946 as Clifford accompanied Truman and Churchill on the train to Fulton, Missouri, where the ex-Prime Minister would deliver his Iron Curtain speech. Churchill was keen to play some poker, but proved no match for Truman and the boys - "a lamb among wolves", as Clifford recalled in his 1991 memoir Counsel to the President. They let him win the odd hand, keeping his losses to around $250; not enough to spoil Churchill's fun, but sufficient to stop him, as one participant put it, "going back to London and bragging to his Limey friends he had beaten the Americans at poker".

By now Clifford could not put a foot wrong. On his advice, Truman mounted the barnstorming "whistle stop" campaign which won him his upset victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. When he resigned as special counsel in 1950 to set up the law firm Clifford and Miller, his White House contacts were eagerly sought by business. A pattern was soon established. During Republican Administrations, he would concentrate on his legal business. When a Democrat returned to power, Clifford would move back, silky and discreet, close to the centre of power.

Thus it was under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Clifford advised Carter when scandal overtook Bert Lance, the Budget Director, and acted as his personal envoy on the Cyprus issue. But it was during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, a friend from the Truman years, that his influence reached its apogee. From 1965, Johnson enlisted Clifford's counsel as America slid ever deeper into the morass of the Vietnam war. Finally after two unavailing attempts to enlist him as Attorney-General, Johnson persuaded Clifford to become Defense Secretary - the very job he had had created 20 years before.

It would be Clifford's finest hour. He was confirmed on 30 January 1968, the very day the Tet Offensive began. That devastating blow to US morale only hardened his longstanding conviction that the US had to extricate itself from an unwinnable war. Clifford was a major influence in Johnson's announcement on 31 March that he would halt the bombing of the north and seek peace negotiations. But nine months later a Republican was back in the White House. On 20 January 1969, immediately after Richard Nixon had been sworn in, Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson went to lunch at the Clifford home in Maryland.

For two more decades he prospered. Then, in 1991, disaster struck. Thirteen years earlier, Clifford had been engaged by the Bank of Credit and Commerce International to convince the US financial authorities to permit BCCI to buy Washington's largest bank, First American Bankshares. In 1981 a group of Arab investors were allowed to buy the bank, on condition that BCCI did not take control. Clifford, by then aged 75, and his partner Robert Altman were named chairman and president.

Nine years later the edifice collapsed. BCCI, by then mired in allegations of drug laundering and corruption, was revealed as the illicit owner of First American. Clifford stood accused of deceiving the banking regulators. Worse still, it emerged that he and Altman had been given a sweetheart stock deal worth $10m. In July 1991 BCCI was shut down, with liabilities of some $5bn. His law practice dried up as clients deserted him in droves. The master lawyer found himself at the wrong end of criminal indictments, for offences which could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

Ultimately he was cleared of the most serious charges, while ill health spared him a trial on the rest. The last ends of the affair were only tied up in August 1998, in a $5m settlement with the Federal Reserve. But BCCI was not his only embarrassment. In 1994 the stepchildren of Pamela Harriman accused him of mismanaging Averell Harriman's fortune, of which he was a trustee. The whole messy business would ultimately be settled privately. But Washington's prototype super-lawyer was condemned to end his days in obscurity and humiliation, a figure from history who had outlived his times.

Rupert Cornwell

Clark McAdams Clifford, lawyer and presidential adviser: born Fort Scott, Kansas 25 December 1906; US Secretary for Defense 1968-69; married 1931 Margery Pepperell Kimball (three daughters); died Bethesda, Maryland 10 October 1998.