Washington Insider Clark M. Clifford Dies
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 1998; Page A1 Clark M. Clifford, 91, the quintessential Washington lawyer and political insider who had been a valued and trusted adviser to four U.S. presidents on issues from campaign strategy to the Vietnam War, died of respiratory failure yesterday at his home in Bethesda.
Clifford, a leading Washington lawyer for more than 40 years, first gained notice as special counsel to Harry S. Truman, when he largely masterminded that president's nearly miraculous victory in the 1948 presidential race. As Lyndon B. Johnson's defense secretary for 10 months, Clifford was credited with persuading the administration to retreat from the quagmire of Vietnam. He played a pivotal role in the opening of peace negotiations.
This legendary career was tarnished in his final years, when he became embroiled in an international scandal that has been described as the biggest bank fraud in history. He and a law partner and protege, Robert A. Altman, who were accused of bribery, were indicted in 1992 in U.S. District Court in Washington and in state courts in New York in connection with activities of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which prosecutors described as a global criminal operation owned by Middle East investors.
Then, in 1993, a New York judge dropped all criminal charges against Clifford, citing Clifford's age and poor health. Altman was acquitted of all criminal charges in New York after a four-month trial.
"I think as time goes on, this extraordinary experience will fade," Clifford said after the judge's decision in his case. "If I may say so, I think my record in government will endure."
Clifford, the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, had spent a lifetime establishing a unique reputation for wisdom and public influence, usually exercised as a civilian.
He never ran for public office and spent only five years altogether in public office: four years with Truman and 10 months as defense secretary. But he played a leading if often behind-the-scenes role in an estimated 11 presidential campaigns.
In addition to his work for Truman and Johnson, he served Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in a variety of sensitive and important special assignments.
Clifford's influence might have been as well defined by the posts he turned down as by those he accepted. These included a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, several ambassadorships and a number of high Cabinet posts.
Clifford was known as a lawyer who was supremely urbane, intelligent and extraordinarily well connected at the highest levels of government. He was all but universally described as among the most effective and richest of Washington lawyers in the decades that followed World War II.
He was courtly and charming, but he had a tough and independent mind. There was a mystique about him and a reputation for probity and sound judgment that attracted clients ranging from such corporate giants as the General Electric Co. and the DuPont Co. to individuals like former House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), when Wright was under investigation by the House ethics committee in 1989.
His ascendancy in Washington had commenced more than 40 years earlier, shortly after World War II, when he became special counsel to Truman. In that capacity, he helped put together the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of post-World War II Europe, and he drafted the 1947 legislation that created the Defense Department and reorganized the armed services.
He played poker with Winston Churchill on the train en route to Fulton, Mo., where Churchill delivered his historic "Iron Curtain" speech. In 1948, he masterminded Truman's hard-hitting whistle-stop reelection campaign in which the incumbent president upset the heavily favored Republican nominee, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.
During the transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy administrations, it was Clifford who served as the president-elect's liaison with the outgoing administration. Carter sent him to mediate a dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in 1977 and to confer with Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in 1980, shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He also advised Carter on the Panama Canal treaties.
Clark McAdams Clifford was born on Christmas day, 1906, in Fort Scott, Kan., the son of an auditor for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. He was named for his uncle Clark McAdams, the crusading liberal editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His parents returned to St. Louis when he was a year old, and he grew up in that city.
He attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a law degree in 1928, then took the Missouri bar examination, placing second out of 310. After law school, Clifford found a job with a leading St. Louis law firm. His initial experience was in criminal law. "The first 12 or 13 clients I represented were all found guilty and sent to the penitentiary," Clifford recalled in an interview almost 50 years later. "But it was a very important learning experience."
For the next 16 years, Clifford practiced law in St. Louis, spending 80 percent of his time on trial work. By the early 1940s, he was earning an estimated $30,000 a year, which was a comfortable income for that period. But the United States was getting into World War II, and Clifford, too old to be drafted, wanted to be part of it nevertheless. He sent his wife and three daughters to Boston, his wife's home town, and in early 1944 joined the Navy.
In the late spring of 1945, he was serving in a staff job on the West Coast when he received a telephone call from an old St. Louis client, James K. Vardaman, who was then Truman's naval aide. Vardaman planned to accompany the president to the Potsdam Conference in Germany in July, which would be two months after the end of the war in Europe. He needed someone to look after naval affairs in the White House while he was away. Clifford was interested and Vardaman had the appropriate orders issued.
Once at the White House, Clifford found there was little work for the naval aide, but he also noticed that Truman's special counsel, Sam Rosenman, a holdover from the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was seriously overworked. "I asked if I could help out, and I became very busy. And I was fascinated with the work," Clifford said in a 1986 interview for this article.
Late in 1945, Clifford replaced Rosenman as special counsel to the president, and over the next four years, he became one of Truman's closest and most highly valued assistants. They dined together at the White House two or three times a week, and the president soon came to value his new counselor as one of only a few members of his staff who were willing to disagree with him. It was Clifford who told the president in blunt and forceful terms during a 1946 rail strike crisis that a planned speech containing such phrases as "hanging traitors" and "giving the country back to the people" was too shrill and polemical. Truman toned it down.
In matters of foreign policy, it was Clifford who persuaded the president to accept George Kennan's containment doctrine as the basic policy for dealing with Soviet expansion. He helped persuade Truman to recognize the new state of Israel over the objections of Secretary of State George C. Marshall. In the domestic arena, he was widely considered the most eloquent advocate of Truman's Fair Deal program.
Refusing to accept the prevailing political consensus that Truman had only the remotest chance of being reelected in 1948, Clifford told the president to wage a bold and aggressive reelection campaign, paying particular attention to the farm and labor vote and expending only minimal efforts on the South. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely on Election Day.
It was evident that the postwar years would usher in a period of increased government involvement and regulation of the affairs of private industry. Clifford figured, accurately, that he knew how to negotiate the federal labyrinth, and that he could make money leading others through it. He opened his law practice on Feb. 1, 1950, and he soon had all the work he could handle.
During the Eisenhower presidency, he had only minimal contact with the White House, but his business thrived, and his activities ranged from representing airlines before the Civil Aeronautics Board to winning authorization for increases in the price of natural gas.
In the early 1960s, Clifford drafted special legislation that saved DuPont stockholders millions of dollars when a DuPont holding company was ordered to divest itself of vast holdings of General Motors stock as a result of an antitrust suit. He helped General Electric negotiate a $7 million settlement of $70 million in government claims against the company arising from a 1961 price-fixing case.
Later work included such matters as negotiating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on behalf of Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. over tire recalls.
He was an adviser to the Kennedy family on a variety of matters, including a contretemps over suggestions that John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage," had been ghost-written. After Kennedy won the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Clifford prepared a blueprint for him on the mechanics of taking over the executive branch of government.
He also advised Kennedy after the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He reportedly told Kennedy that the president should establish an independent presidential organization to oversee the intelligence community, a community that some felt had misled the president on the invasion.
During a presidential showdown over the price of steel in the spring of 1962, Clifford represented Kennedy in a meeting with Roger Blough, the president of U.S. Steel who had drawn Kennedy's ire with a disclosure that his company planned to raise the price of steel by 12 percent. After meeting with Clifford, Blough backed down and canceled the price increase, which Kennedy contended would have been inflationary.
When Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Clifford was one of the first people summoned to the White House by the new president. He could have replaced Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general when Kennedy resigned in 1964 to run for the Senate from New York. He also turned down Johnson's offers to name him ambassador to the United Nations or director of central intelligence.
He did become chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and initially he supported the president's conduct of the war in Vietnam. But as the fighting dragged on, he began to harbor doubts. In the spring of 1968, Johnson prevailed upon him to replace Robert S. McNamara as secretary of defense, and Clifford's doubts soon turned to a conviction that the war could not be won.
"I was appalled. Nothing had prepared me for the weakness of the military case. I felt we had a real loser on our hands," Clifford said.
But the president had not changed his mind on the war, and the undertaking fell to Clifford to persuade him to order a partial halt in the bombing of North Vietnam as a first step toward the opening of peace talks.
"That was a difficult year," Clifford recalled. "A long friendship that I had with President Johnson became badly frayed."
Peace talks eventually did begin, but the war in Vietnam continued for seven more years. Although frayed, the friendship between Clifford and the president did not break. On Jan. 20, 1969, Johnson attended the inauguration of Richard M. Nixon as president, then with his wife, Lady Bird, was guest of honor at a farewell luncheon given by Clifford at his home in Bethesda.
The next day, Clifford returned to his law practice. As a private citizen, he spoke out often against the war in Vietnam.
He helped arrange the transition for the new administration after the election of Carter as president in 1976, and he undertook such assignments from Carter as heading a group of senior advisers who were trying to develop an appropriate U.S. response to the presence of Soviet troops in Cuba.
When Bert Lance, Carter's director of the Office of Management and Budget, came under investigation by a Senate committee for what appeared to be excessive overdrafts at Lance's First National Bank in Calhoun, Ga., it was Clifford he turned to for help.
With his partner, Altman, Clifford also began counseling a group of foreign investors in a takeover of Financial General Bankshares Inc., which later became First American Bankshares Inc. This effort began in 1978, and it culminated with the takeover of First American in 1982. Clifford then became chairman of the company.
Clifford and Altman later said they did not know that the investors were front men for the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a London-based firm that pleaded guilty in 1991 to illegally purchasing First American and three other U.S. banks. BCCI also was described by prosecutors as having bribed central bankers, government officials and others to gain power and money. Its activities also included international money laundering and terrorism, according to a Senate investigation.
Testifying before a congressional committee, Clifford said he had been duped by investors he trusted, describing them as "men of reputation, wealth and stature."
In 1991, following news accounts of the relationship between BCCI and First American and federal indictments against BCCI, Clifford and Altman resigned their positions at the bank. Nicholas Katzenbach, a former U.S. attorney general, replaced Clifford as chairman.
In the face of unrelenting publicity over the investigation, Clifford's law practice deteriorated seriously. Paul C. Warnke, the former arms negotiator and Clifford's longtime partner, and many of the other lawyers in the firm of Clifford & Warnke left. Clifford spent virtually all of his time at that period preparing his legal defense. He underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery in March 1993 and had a heart attack shortly afterward.
Throughout the ordeal, daily media accounts of the case against him were "the hardest part to take, the most disillusioning," Clifford said. "I would sit here, knowing there's no merit to the charge."
In September of this year, nearly a decade after the BCCI scandal began to unfold, Clifford and Altman settled the final civil lawsuits stemming from it. They gave up their claims to $18.5 million in legal fees and First American stock. In February, the two had agreed to forfeit $5 million to settle charges by the Federal Reserve Board that the two knew that BCCI owned First American and lied to banking regulators about it.
How did that last, sad chapter begin? In testimony before the House Banking Committee in the fall of 1991, Clifford said it was a desire for a new challenge that sparked his interest in First American: "I was well. I was strong. I was vigorous. I didn't want to retire. I didn't want to just sit on the porch and rock and wait to die."
In an interview, he said he didn't want to follow the example of some of his contemporaries who had retired.
"Some of them would go with their wives each morning to the market and help with the marketing, pushing those carts and all," he said. "Well, I didn't find that very appealing."
Survivors include his wife of 66 years, the former Margery Pepperell Kimball, of Bethesda; three daughters, Joyce C. Burland, of Halifax, Vt., Randall C. Wight, of Baltimore, and Faith Christian, of Chico, Calif.; 12 grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.
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