The Performance of a Lifetime

By Marjorie Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer

He shambled in clutching an old gray fedora, of the kind (perhaps the very hat) he wears in photos from the '40s, where he smiles from his deferential spot a few steps astern of Harry Truman's shoulder. He never put the hat on his head yesterday, but that wasn't the point: Clark Clifford, master of gesture, had come to defend himself before the House Banking Committee, theater of the absurd. As usual, he left nothing to chance.

It can't have been an accident that Marny Clifford and Lynda Carter -- starlet-wife of Clifford's protege and law partner Robert A. Altman -- came in first, dressed in black. Or that Clifford made notations on his documents with a humble pencil. Or that the pair's long-awaited first public testimony about the widening bank scandal they find themselves in opened with a long, chatty narrative from Clifford himself that threw a moist blanket of pathos over the fiery oratory of the committee members.

He was the elderly trial lawyer, bringing all his skills to the summation of his last, most important case. He was a ventriloquist, playing straight man to a partner assigned the riskier lines. He was Grampy, telling the kids about how he built the homestead in aught-four -- a statesman reminding a roomful of aspirants that he was present at the creation of their universe. He was everything he had to be if he hoped to persuade the committee -- and the vastly more important television audience beyond -- that he was, in a word he stressed, mystified to find himself at the helm of an institution secretly owned by an outlaw foreign bank.

"Now, I recognize as I listen to you gentlemen we have a formidable task in persuading many of you of our innocence in this," Clifford told the committee in buckling down to his opening statement, an hour-and-a-half-long tale that walked his audience from his service in Truman's White House up through his twilight career as chairman of First American Bankshares. "But I approach it willingly. I approach it with a desire to have this hearing.

"Each of you at some time in your career has been attacked and you've recognized the difficulty with how you respond to the attack. You don't own a newspaper through which you can speak and neither do we. You don't have persons who will rise to your defense and neither do we." Never mind that he was anxiously flanked by some of the most serious Washington and New York legal talent money can buy: Clark Clifford brings an epic sincerity to all he says. In the high ivory expanse of the Rayburn House Office Building's Wright Patman Room, his musical voice rang clear, an instrument more complicated than normal human voices. "The whole atmosphere of the public, all the proceedings that have taken place, all would be against us. And yet, we appear here so that you can hear our side. And I suggest to you that it is my deep conviction that when you have heard us, you will at least in some way have a different attitude."

He told them that "our consciences are clear." He told them, "You have my word for it." He told them he took on the management of a major bank holding company a decade ago, at the age of 75, because he needed the challenge. "Maybe it's kept me alive for nine more years," he said, with a smile that shyly conceded his great age.

In the end, he let himself be at a loss for words. He paused. He lifted his skeletal, elongated, always-busy fingers in a gesture of confusion. "My judgment is questionable," he said sadly. "I guess I should have learned {of BCCI's ownership} some way. ... I'd give a lot if somebody had told me, back in 1984, that this operation was the kind that it was. I would have given anything if I could have avoided what I've gone through this past year."

When he was done, he fell into the profound stillness from which he marshals his energy after 84 years. Sitting back, eyes closed, the articulate hands for once at rest, he seemed impossibly old, the famous hair a pure white, the skin a rosy map of crinkled tissue. His brows and lashes seemed dusted by snow.

"Mr. Clifford is most impressive," said ranking minority member Chalmers P. Wylie (R-Ohio) out in the hallway, after a full morning of this. "Mr. Clifford could sell hams in a synagogue." Compelling Clash

It wasn't so much the things he said. Although it was Clifford's first public testimony about the relationship between the renegade Bank of Credit and Commerce International and the Washington-based First American Bankshares, which Clifford chaired until his resignation last month, there were no major developments in yesterday's hearing. There were no shocking revelations about the scandal, which flows from intensive investigations by the Federal Reserve, the Manhattan district attorney and a Senate committee. No important new twists in the explanations offered by Clifford or Altman, First American's former president.

It was the clash of imperatives that made it a classic piece of Washington drama. On one side, Clifford and Altman, pressing their public defense. On the other, a committee of 52 men and women who, for the past couple of years, have labored in the gloomy shade of the S&L scandal. The House Banking Committee -- formerly a prestigious assignment -- has come in for a major share of blame for regulatory laxity. Clark Clifford, then, represented a wonderful opportunity for the 30-odd members who put in appearances: Indignation! Righteousness! Few constituents understand what the BCCI scandal is all about, but surely they know it's bad. What could be better than a chance to admonish the scandal's two leading American players?

"It pains me to say this," said Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.), painlessly, "but others may believe your story, but I must say I don't believe a word of it. I've looked at this case and my conclusion is that you knew and that you made millions."

"Mr. Chairman," said Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), "Mr. Altman and Mr. Clifford are asking us to believe that when their house was on fire, they didn't smell the smoke, feel the heat or hear the alarms."

Schumer knows how to get maximum mileage from a hearing. "When you listen to Clifford and all his achievements, my heart wants to believe him, but my head says it's very hard to," he said in a quick interview after the morning session.

He rushed away to the TV microphones set up in the lobby of the Rayburn Building's east entrance. "When I listen to Clifford and think about his achievement," he said, "my heart wants to believe him, but my head says no."

"After listening to your presentation," he told Clifford in the afternoon, "I guess I would say to you that my heart wants to believe you, but my head says no."

The Spouses' Support

When Clifford first reached the witness table he handed the hat to Marny, who stowed it beneath her chair with the aplomb of a woman who's been serving as assistant prop master for decades: a month shy of 60 years, to be precise.

Lynda Carter's role was more prominent. At the hearing's start, as Clifford and Altman entered through the northernmost door, the former TV Wonder Woman sprang to the threshold to give her man a photogenic kiss. Awkwardly, there were no cameras there, so she also gave him a kiss when the proceedings broke for lunch.

On their way out of the room for lunch, Altman and Carter paused for photographs and she murmured some supportive words about the relief of hearing her husband granted a chance to air the truth. As they swept down the marble hallway, the cameras helplessly trailed this unaccustomed glamour; when the Cliffords came out, therefore, no cameras remained to record the fact that they were holding hands.

Altman himself dominated the afternoon, answering most of the members' prolix and somewhat redundant questions. It fell to him to perform the high-wire act of answering most of the more specific inquiries, citing the nitty-gritty specifics of dates and times and laws and letters.

It was a fascinating chance to watch the symbiotic bond of Clifford and Altman, who together make up a third character in the drama. If one looks improbably old, the other seems improbably young. Altman, like Clifford, wore a double-breasted, pin-striped suit with upswept lapels, a white shirt and French cuffs. Altman shadows Clifford's hand gestures, sometimes mimicking at the very same time Clifford's steepled gesture, in which the fingers all meet in thoughtful comity.

The room reverberated with the kind of irony in which Washington specializes. Fourteen years ago this week, Clifford starred in a different hearing, across the Hill, concerning a different banking scandal. Only then he was Bert Lance's lawyer -- writing his client's aggressive, give-no-quarter opening statement, and then teaching him how to modulate his later responses to include grateful praise of the senators who had given him the opportunity to clear the air. Lance was so impressed by Clifford's skills that he recommended him to Agha Hasan Abedi, the Pakistani banker who eventually embroiled Clifford in BCCI.

And how must it feel to Clifford to receive lese-majeste from the likes of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.)? Kennedy opened with a statement praising everyone involved in the case, including Clark Clifford, whom he called "one of the greatest public servants in modern American history. ... His record of courageous service to our country is legendary and needs no introduction." One imagined Clifford thinking, You young pup; thinking of how he had kept the most private secrets of the congressman's uncle, President Kennedy; had vainly tried to explain to the grandfather -- the first Joe Kennedy -- that the father, Bobby Kennedy, would never do for attorney general.

This was, after all, just the House of Representatives. Not the place superlawyer Clark Clifford ever had his closest contacts: not worth that investment of his time. But this was the place chosen for his star turn. And so it was worth stoically enduring a certain amount of denunciation:

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a freshman member, went beyond fulmination into something like passion. "Let me just say that as a new member of this committee, I am thoroughly disgusted with the high and mighty, with the privileged," she said. "I come from a district where people are poor, where people are struggling, where people go to jail when they steal a loaf of bread. They're shot by cops if they dare to make a wrong move. ... The high and the mighty and the rich are getting away with unusual criminal activity, and I'm anxious to be involved in these hearings. I do not intend to be nice to anybody."

In the midst of her statement, Clifford elaborately cleared his throat, a troubling, phlegmy sound he made no effort to direct away from the microphone. And for the whole morning, he addressed the "gentlemen of the committee," or "you men," excluding not only Waters but also Reps. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) and Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). Each time, Waters smiled a wintry smile. Could this just be the reflexive sexism of an 84-year-old man?

It seemed likely until the lunch break, when Clifford was coaxed to the TV microphones in the lobby. Some committee members had said very harsh things, a reporter observed: Did it bother him?

"I think everyone's entitled to -- " and Clifford paused slightly, the tired gent suddenly falling away to be replaced by a younger, more dangerous man, " -- his opinion," he concluded with an acid smile.

The Ways of Wealth

Before the day was out the testimony would raise other populist eyebrows. Rep. Clifford B. Stearns (R-Fla.) asked Altman about reports that BCCI's Abedi had given Lynda Carter a Jaguar as a wedding gift. "It is true that he gave my wife a very generous gift," he said. "That is the kind of thing that is done in the circles in which he operated in the Middle East, but as far as a personal relationship, our dealings were almost entirely business."

Toward hearing's end, Clifford was questioned by the lone socialist member of Congress, Bernie Sanders (Vt.), about the BCCI loans that enabled him to purchase First American stock that he later sold at great profit.

"Tell the American people and the working people making eight or 10 bucks an hour whose standard of living is declining, what it's about when prominent Americans work for Middle Eastern billionaire dictators who provide $10 million lines of credit, and as a result of that they are able to make many, many millions of dollars in a couple of years ... what should they believe in that type of system?"

Clifford pointed out that there was nothing illegal about his representing the foreign investors he believed to be First American's shareholders. With patient hauteur, he explained that "these people abroad decide that they want to acquire this bank holding company. So they get together and they come up with around $200 million. Now, this may be difficult for citizens in Vermont who make $8, $10 an hour to understand, but it happens all the time."

There was a two-hour break for lunch, at the advance request of Clifford's attorneys, so that Clifford could take a nap. As the questions dragged on in the second session, it was apparent the hearing couldn't end by 5 p.m., so there was another break in the late afternoon.

It was after 7 when Chairman Henry B. Gonzales (D-Tex.) finally gaveled the hearing to a close. "I know it's been long," he told Clifford and Altman, "this committee is large. You can look at it this way: It's a 52-member committee. It's as if you had appeared before half of the Senate, plus two."

Just as lawyer Clifford would have advised, witness Clifford thanked the committee for its courtesy before shambling out, for the last time, to the Cadillac that would bear him home.

© 1991 The Washington Post Company