A dramatic fall from style: Clark Clifford, rock-solid powerhouse of US politics, is rock-solid no more. Godfrey Hodgson looks at a man who helped make Washington great

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The Independent Online
When scandal is suspected, the law in the United States is no respecter of persons. Caspar Weinberger, President Reagan's Secretary of Defense, has been indicted for alleged equivocation to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. There are reports that President Reagan may be indicted in the same matter. Yet neither case is quite so incongruous as the report that Clark Clifford is to be indicted for his part in the scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, of whose Washington subsidiary he was a director. According to his friends, Clifford has denied wrongdoing and says he will fight the charges.

It has been known for some time that Clifford showed uncharacteristically poor judgement in lending his name to the troubled bank. The federal and state indictments, however, and their claims that Clifford accepted 'sweetheart' loans and bribes, will be a bitter humiliation for a man in his eighties, who was the most eminent Washington lawyer / politician of his generation.

Clark Clifford was born in Kansas in 1906 and spent most of his early working life in Missouri. He went to Washington at the end of the Second World War after handling legal work for a friend of the new president, Harry Truman. Within a year, Truman valued Clifford so highly that he made him his speechwriter and confidential aide. He was entrusted, for example, with compiling a list of Soviet breaches of international agreements, the Clifford-Kelsey report, which was so delicate that Truman said its release would 'blow the roof off the Kremlin'.

Clifford is thus one of the few survivors of the generation that witnessed the transformation of Washington from a sleepy southern town to a world capital. That process began with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the Thirties, which brought lawyers, academics and businessmen to Washington to work for the network of federal agencies which the programme had spawned. When America entered the Second World War in 1941 there was a further dramatic expansion of federal government, as the war and navy departments and the newly created economic agencies recruited thousands of bureaucrats.

When Clifford's patron, Harry Truman, succeeded Roosevelt in 1945, however, Washington was still recognisably a provincial city. There were separate benches, bathrooms and water fountains for black people and white. The city centre of the new capital of the world reminded visitors of downtown Akron, Ohio. The theatre was limited to a couple of roadshows a year at the National, and you drank bourbon before dinner and iced tea with it.

What completed the city's metamorphosis into a great capital was the onset of the Cold War, and America's commitment, made by Truman in a series of speeches written by the young Clifford, to contain the spread of Communism. With that commitment came the establishment through the National Security Act of 1947 of a unified Department of Defense, a Central Intelligence Agency, and the President's National Security Council. Clifford was one of the designers of those structures.

By the end of Truman's presidency, Washington had changed for ever and a new breed of political insider, of whom Clifford was the epitome, had been born. These insiders alternated between lucrative private law practice and brief stints at the higher levels of government. Their clients included the biggest corporations in America, anxious to be guided through the dangerous labyrinths of federal regulation. They exerted their influence in subtle ways, arranging for a client interest group to be heard by a congressional committee, placing a favourite article in the Washington Post, putting forward a favoured name for a key job.

In his day, Clifford was incomparable. A tall, softly spoken man, he was always impeccably turned out, in blue and white seersucker in summer, and English worsted once the Washington heat had cooled. His firm was small and his partners distinguished. Visitors were escorted into his presence by a stylish English secretary. His office was arranged so that the White House, only a couple of hundred yards away across Lafayette Square, was precisely framed in his window.

It is said, plausibly, that this view added significantly to the already substantial fees Clifford was able to charge the bankers, industrialists, foreign governments and other earthly powers who came to seek his advice.

It is unkindly, perhaps apocryphally, added that he was not above having his secretary interrupt the first conference with a new client by discreetly reminding him that the White House was on the line, thus setting things up nicely for Clifford to flatter his client by saying, with just the right degree of casualness, 'Oh, tell them I'll call back'.

In any case, he would put the fingertips of his manicured hands together and, speaking slowly and in admirably marshalled sentences, would give them his advice. And his advice, even without his influence and contacts, was worth every cent.

For one thing, if he did stoop to a touch of theatricality to impress his clients, he hardly needed to. For Clark Clifford was the honoured counsellor of presidents for almost 40 years. As a lawyer, he handled highly confidential affairs for John F Kennedy, including the tricky task of dealing with a woman who claimed to have been engaged to the dashing senator and a libel action against the liberal columnist Drew Pearson. By 1960, though his personal preference for the Democratic nomination was his old Missouri friend Stuart Symington, and though his private opinion of Kennedy was not high, he had rallied smoothly to the future President's side. He played a key role in negotiating with those being considered for the top jobs in Kennedy's New Frontier.

His finest hour, however, came when President Johnson appointed him Secretary of Defense in 1968. Clifford was the staunchest of Cold War warriors. He had been in at the beginning of the American commitment to contain Communism and had been a fierce hawk on Vietnam. That was why Johnson picked him to run the Pentagon.

To everyone's astonishment, he was the first among the Washington establishment to see the political damage the war was doing and to advise Johnson to get out. One who was present at the White House meeting recalls the elongated drawl in which Clifford made the political case against continuing the war: 'There has been a tremendous e-r-oosion of support.'

Clifford is anything but a simple man, and there were other motives. Perhaps he sensed that Johnson, his client, was looking for reasons to cut his losses. Another he expressed to me. I put it to him that the war had destroyed the reputation of the foreign policy elite to which he belonged. He put the tips of his fingers together and said: 'My friend, you are so very right]'

That was almost a quarter of a century ago, and whatever the Vietnam war did to other reputations, Clifford's continued unimpaired. He had been the embodiment of the new kind of White House aides in the post-war years, suave, highly educated men of the world who replaced the happy-go-lucky newspapermen and boozing poker players of the old school of American politics.

Now he became the embodiment of a new breed of Washington lawyer-statesman, a dispenser of wise counsel and discreet influence, rather than of strictly legal opinion or courtroom skills. His now legendary reputation was given one last boost when President Carter called him in for advice on how to run the White House in 1979.

Clark Clifford provides an interesting insight into the way power and influence have been wielded in Washington in the years of the imperial presidency. He was never elected to office and only held public appointments briefly; yet his status and his achievements were far greater than those of all but a handful of elected

politicians.

Business report, page 22

(Photograph omitted)

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