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D.C.'s 'Inside Man'

Sunday, November 29, 2009

CLARK CLIFFORD

The Wise Man of Washington

By John Acacia

Univ. of Kentucky. 440 pp. $35

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For 60 years, Clark Clifford was the dean of Washington insiders. As a trusted adviser to three presidents, he commanded tremendous influence. His legendary career is recounted in a new biography by John Acacia, who has taught American history at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.

Clifford helped Truman defeat Dewey, fought for the creation of Israel and mopped up plagiarism charges against John F. Kennedy prior to his 1960 campaign for president. During the Vietnam War, Clifford served as an adviser to President Lyndon Johnson before becoming secretary of defense in 1968. A vocal skeptic of the Vietnam War, he questioned U.S. involvement during the escalation debates of 1965. By the outbreak of the Tet Offensive, his skepticism had turned to opposition. He nudged the Johnson administration to suspend bombing raids and pursue peace negotiations with North Vietnam. "Clifford's efforts to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam . . . were the high-water mark of his long and distinguished Washington career," Acacia writes.

Acacia masterfully explores Clifford's ability to persuade the powerful. The descriptions of White House tussles between advisers competing for the president's ear -- especially the hawks on Vietnam, who we know were leading the president to disaster -- are riveting. All too often, we focus on the officeholders, forgetting the managers backstage. Acacia's book shows just how much power advisers can wield.

-- Timothy R. Smith

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