The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clark Clifford: The rise of a reputation

This story is one of nine that has been republished to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Washington Post’s Style section.

This one knocked Washington off its axis. Marjorie Williams, an immortal Style byline, trained her near-clairvoyant mind on a paragon of respectability, and found instead a mere mortal betrayed by his own reputation. Originally published in two parts, but presented here in full, the piece quietly builds over its 10,000 words until at last we see a man for what he really is, and a writer-reporter for what she really can do.

If you could see out the windows of his 12th-floor office, you would be able to see the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. You could see the Capitol, where he rode with Harry Truman when Truman went to deliver the speech Clark Clifford had drafted, the speech that would become known as the Doctrine. You could see Lafayette Square and, beyond it, the White House, to which Clifford used to amble whenever Jack Kennedy’s secretary called. You could see the Potomac, and look toward the Pentagon, where Clifford moved when Lyndon Johnson needed a new secretary of defense in the last desperate year of his presidency.

But Clifford is too sensitive to bright light, a legacy of hepatitis, which he caught during a trip to Vietnam in 1967. And so his office is perpetually dimmed by heavy tan curtains that close out the radiance of the day; visitors must content themselves with his own, more subtle luster.

He closes his eyes and covers them with his vast right hand, as if with a cool compress. “All I can say to you,” he confides in his laborious baritone, “is it has been the most dif-fi-cult pe-ri-od in my life.”

Now the hands, so long the fingers seem to have four or five knuckles apiece, join in the steeple that is his trademark gesture. It says thoughtfulness, judiciousness, probity. “I’ve prac-ticed law for 62 years,” he continues. “This is the first time that an-y cloud has ever been associated with my name or my reputation.”

Re-pu-taaaaaay-shun, he says. In the time it takes Clark Clifford to state his grief, you could run downstairs to buy a paper and back; Clifford is famously deliberate, famously theatrical, in his every word and gesture.

But perhaps only Clifford’s voice could give that word — reputation — the weight it deserves just now, near the end of his life, in the midst of his troubles. For it is Clifford’s golden reputation that is suddenly threatened after 46 years in Washington. And it was Clifford’s reputation, and his willingness to lend it to an unsavory client, that brought him into the bank scandal that now sullies his image as the prototype of the respectable Washington lawyer.

Time was, this was the kind of trouble for which you called Clark Clifford. Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, House Speaker Jim Wright, former CIA director Richard Helms, Carter administration Budget Director Bert Lance: Men who had legal problems with political dimensions, or political problems with legal dimensions, all called Clark Clifford, who was a master at tweezing one from the other — and then defusing both.

But today it is Clifford who, at 84, is entangled in investigations — by the Federal Reserve Board, the Justice Department and the Manhattan district attorney. These authorities are following up a shadowy foreign bank’s admission that it illegally acquired a controlling share in First American Bankshares, a Washington-area bank holding company chaired by Clifford. They are also examining whether Clifford either knowingly or unknowingly misled state and federal regulators 10 years ago when he laid his prestige on the line to assure them that the foreign bank would not be involved in First American’s acquisition by a group of Middle Eastern investors. The two banks, and their relationships with Clifford and his law firm, have been under ever-sharper scrutiny since 1989, when executives of the foreign bank pleaded guilty to laundering drug money — some of it through accounts at Clifford’s First American Bank.

Clifford has said that at worst he was misled by the foreign bank with which his name is now linked. But revelations keep coming. On Sunday The Washington Post reported that he profited personally from stock transactions, to the tune of more than $6 million, that were financed by the foreign bank he claims to have been duped by.

Clifford’s embarrassment comes just as he was preparing to cement his legend with a memoir, “Counsel to the President,” for which Random House paid him $1 million. What was to be his triumphant act of self-definition threatens instead to be an ironic comment on the evanescence of image.

“It is,” says an old friend, “one of the grand falls.”

Establishment Washington is stunned by the turn of events. Not just surprised or — in the cases of the many people who bear Clifford a genuine fondness or respect — saddened, but truly shocked. Because Clifford has been a kind of local totem, basic to the status hierarchy of postwar Washington. In the words of Democratic lawyer Berl Bernhard, “He has held this position at the pinnacle of — it’s not really just power — it’s the pinnacle of respectability.”

And he has guarded that summit carefully. Although he has made himself a multimillionaire, his true capital is in the name Clark Clifford, and what it stands for. This is what his investors knew, in hiring him to represent their deal. It is what the bank regulators accepted, in weighing Clifford’s assurances against their own doubts.

The worst possible scenario under investigation is that Clifford knowingly misrepresented the deal to those regulators. The best is that he was duped, lied to by his investors and lured into lending them his prestige. For a man who has made a career of knowing the score, it is hard to say which would be the more painful choice.

“I can’t put Clifford together in my mind with either stupidity or unethical behavior,” says former Johnson aide and fellow attorney Harry McPherson. But, he concedes, if news reports to date accurately reflect investigators’ findings, “this required either a failure of intellect or a failure of ethical reasoning, I guess.”

Clark M. Clifford’s 1998 obituary

On a human level, Clifford’s is a relatively simple story: the story of a driven man who came to Washington and made good — made history — but who nursed one ambition too many. The particular engines of this story are as old as Clifford is, and their insistent noise can be heard all through the decades of his career. They may help solve the mystery of how a man as smart — and as wealthy — as Clark Clifford came to ally himself with clients who could bring about his downfall.

But there is another mystery in Clifford’s history: the intriguing question of how Washington came to repose so much confidence in a corporate lawyer-lobbyist, making him the personification, the very definition, of integrity. The answer to that mystery lies in the story of how he made himself the monumental figure he is — and of how eager Washington always is to think of its fixers as statesmen.

This is the history of a Washington reputation.

Lloyd Cutler, another prominent Democratic lawyer, measures Clifford’s reputation in an anecdote:

In 1979, at the nadir of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Cutler was asked to become counsel to the president. “When the president asked me to become counsel, I asked what did he expect from me. And he said, ‘I want you to perform a Clark Clifford role. To do what Clark Clifford did for Harry Truman.’ “ These words, from a president who ran against the Washington establishment Clifford had long symbolized, described a relationship that was then almost 30 years in the past.

Cutler continues: “I got it in writing. And after that, whenever a meeting went on that I wasn’t invited to . . . I would go to President Carter or to [Chief of Staff] Hamilton Jordan and say, ‘I think Harry Truman would have wanted Clark Clifford to be at this meeting.’ It was like saying ‘Open Sesame.’ Really, it opened every door.”

Clifford describes his meteoric start in Washington, in 1945, as almost accidental. A native of Missouri, he was a successful St. Louis trial lawyer, a pillar of the city who planned to stay there, when America joined World War II. Although old enough to be exempt from service, Clifford volunteered for the Navy and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944.

An old associate from Missouri who was serving as the new president’s naval aide had Clifford assigned here temporarily as his assistant in the summer of 1945. And Clifford recognized immediately that there was a power vacuum around Truman: After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, his old associates, tired from long service and in many cases contemptuous of the new president, had deserted the White House in droves.

Clifford moved quickly. While his own boss was at the Potsdam Conference with the president, he attached himself to Samuel I. Rosenman, the special counsel to the president who was one of the few FDR holdovers. He did whatever chores he was allowed to do, and eventually he was promoted to replace the naval aide. Clifford was given responsibility for arranging Truman’s regular poker weekends on the presidential yacht Williamsburg, games that became an important part of his bond with Truman — and an important rite of access to the president, which Clifford controlled. The first thing he did was study a poker manual until his game improved, a small price to pay for the bonds he forged with the likes of W. Averell Harriman, future chief justice Fred Vinson and then-Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

By the time Rosenman left to return to his New York law practice, Clifford had begun to establish himself as a speechwriter and all-purpose adviser. In June 1946 he became Truman’s special counsel. He was 39, and he had been in Washington less than a year.

After a time there was no area of policy he did not touch. He was soon the subject of fawning magazine profiles as the power behind the president, a new breed of White House aide. The aura was born. Even today, Clifford is a notably handsome man. At 39, he was devastating: blue-eyed and imposingly tall, with blond hair he was sometimes accused of styling into its wheaty waves and the flashing smile of a man who knows he has perfect teeth. With his wife, Marny, he became socially sought-after. “Just to look at them,” gushed a society columnist in The Washington Post, “makes you feel you’ve just gone through an ocean spray.”

Clifford’s willingness to work was his seed capital. He worked 70- and 80-hour weeks, and according to his wife, he sometimes fell asleep at parties.

Clifford’s book plays up the more statesmanly functions of his job — an emphasis he would make all through his career. He was deeply involved in the first building blocks of what would become the Cold War policy of containment: the Truman Doctrine, the Four Points, the Marshall Plan. And his book suggests that he was crucial to Truman’s decision, in 1948, to grant immediate recognition to the new state of Israel.

In domestic policy, the president’s counsel was perceived as liberals’ chief conduit to the president. But Clifford, who had had no interest in government at the time Roosevelt launched the New Deal, guarded his own views very closely. In his book, Clifford writes in the clinical argot of the pragmatist. He refers scathingly to “ ‘professional liberals’ whose ardor and search for ideological purity outweighed their discretion and their judgment.”

Clifford’s pragmatism determined his attitude toward the early manifestations of communist witch-hunting in 1946 and 1947: He supported Truman’s Loyalty Program. The infamous Executive Order 9835, issued in March 1947, established “loyalty boards” empowered to examine federal employees, who could be fired on the basis of anonymous accusations to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and without any specific finding that they had done anything disloyal. Thousands of federal employees were hauled before loyalty hearings, and many forced from the government under circumstances that made it almost impossible for them to find other jobs.

His failure to head this off, Clifford writes, is one of the greatest regrets of his career. Truman “felt that without the loyalty program, the political pressures would have been much greater, and more difficult to resist. At the time, I agreed with him; later I would come to a different conclusion.” But his precise role in the affair is left vague. The executive order, Clifford writes, was drafted by the FBI and the Justice Department and “passed through my office before it was approved by the President.”

It is a selective reporting of his role. As every good bureaucrat knows, ducking involvement in an issue can require as much finesse as joining the fray. At least one liberal friend, Assistant Secretary of the Interior C. Girard Davidson, entreated Clifford to use his influence against the gathering forces of red-baiting. In late 1947 he wrote Clifford a long, confidential letter arguing that the Loyalty Program must be redesigned to guarantee employees the standard rights of due process: to confront their accusers, to hear the charges against them, to present witnesses on their own behalf, to appeal. Clifford forwarded the letter to the presidential assistant in charge of the program with a bland covering memo saying, “I shall appreciate having your comments on his letter, and your advice as to how I should reply.”

The letter somehow leaked, causing a raft of editorials calling for Davidson’s firing.

Davidson never heard from Clifford.

The climax of Clifford’s service to Truman came with the hairbreadth victory of 1948. Clifford was widely perceived as the author of Truman’s impossible, come-from-behind win, including the grueling “whistle-stop” train tour. After it, he decided to leave the White House and strike out on his own.

All power in Washington ultimately flows from politics. Thus his role in the 1948 election, observes another Democratic lawyer, “launched him into the absolute most upper echelons of the Washington power scene. And he knew how to handle that. He knew how to get there, and he knew what it took to stay there . . . He knew what he could be, and he became it.”

Honing the image

Clifford’s aura flows, first, from his role in the history of his times. But it is hard to separate his contributions from the legend he has built up around them, and from his great skill at capitalizing on his natural gifts — his voice, his bearing, even the alliterative good luck of his name.

He wears double-breasted pinstriped suits with sharp, upswept lapels; he has worn them steadily for decades, lending them his own dignity when the whims of fashion condemned them as inappropriate on other men. Folded into his great leather desk chair, with his polished wingtips planted flat on the floor, he has physical fabric to spare: His knees sit higher than his thighs, and his arms are so long that with his elbows planted on the chair’s arms, his hands can meet up at chin level.

The presence is polished off by the deep, rich voice, deployed so slowly it almost parodies itself.

“There’s that soft, confidential, complimentary tone,” says George Reedy, former press secretary to Lyndon Johnson. “All your defenses go down.”

Reedy summarizes the total effect: “He radiates prudence, more than anyone else I have ever met in Washington. He has at least as much prudence as others, but he definitely radiates it more.”

A close associate describes Clifford’s aura as “a totally conscious construction. Totally.”

For 41 of his 46 years here Clifford has been a lawyer-lobbyist, like the handful of men who preceded him in the field or were his peers (Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran, Abe Fortas, James Rowe), and like the thousands of men and women who have since flourished on K Street.

But he is “like” these others only by category. His genius has consisted largely of making himself seem as unlike them as possible, in the eyes of his clients, of the government officials who are his targets, and of the press. Through his intermittent work as adviser and problem-solver to presidents, he has made himself appear a lifelong public servant who only incidentally practices hardball Washington law.

If you were to codify Clifford’s achievement, it could be reduced to five simple rules:

1. Resist characterization as a lobbyist or influence-peddler, however much truth those labels might hold. Others lobby; Clifford counsels.

2. Develop something more lasting than influence, which perishes with each change of administration. Because Clifford has prestige, influence follows.

3. Shun the accountability and dependence (not to mention the pay scale) of a government job. For Clifford, who served only one year in government in the past four decades, the half-dozen presidential job offers he turned down would have been demotions.

4. Hone your wisdom in foreign, not domestic, policy. It’s easier to influence behind the scenes, it’s worth more status points, and it’s far less likely to conflict with a corporate law practice.

5. Above all, avoid appearing to seek power. There’s no one the power-hungry creatures of Washington admire more than someone for whom power looks effortless; the idea is that power begs an audience with Clifford because he’s just so damn smart. “Clifford’s view of himself is that power sought him — that he never sought power,” says a close associate. “At a certain point in a person’s life, when he has said something like this long enough, he believes it when he says it. Even if on a daily basis he does things that suggest otherwise.”

Private Practice

On leaving the Truman administration, Clifford went into partnership with a friend who had worked in the antitrust division of the Justice Department. He immediately developed a little speech that he delivered to every prospective client: I do not consider that this firm will have any influence of any kind here in Washington . . . If you want influence, you should consider going elsewhere. What we can offer you is an extensive knowledge of how to deal with the government on your problems . . .

Within a year of leaving office, he was representing RCA, Standard Oil, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Republic of Indonesia, El Paso Natural Gas, TWA and Phillips Petroleum, whose chairman he had met through a good friend, Oklahoma Sen. Robert S. Kerr.

Not until 1969 did any member of his firm register as a lobbyist; not until 1975, when the Justice Department made a minor fuss over the firm’s four-year-old representation of Algerian oil interests, did Clifford register as the agent of any foreign government. His was, he said then and says now, an advisory firm.

Of course, Clifford well knew that his clients regarded him as a big wheel at the White House. He remained close to President Truman, sometimes joining him on vacations in Key West, and continuing to be responsible for arranging Truman’s cherished poker weekends.

And when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower took office, there was still the Democratic Congress to deal with. Clifford was already best friends with Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington, whom he had known in St. Louis. He made tight associations, too, with junior Sen. John F. Kennedy, with future Majority Leader Johnson, and with Kerr — who was arguably as powerful a figure as Johnson. In Symington, Kennedy and Johnson, he also had as friends three of the party’s future presidential contenders.

He became known as the Washington lawyer who had a special skill, who could succeed where others failed — and by the ‘60s was rumored to be the first lawyer in America to make more than a million dollars a year. (He disputes the statement that he was first, without quarreling with the million-dollar figure.) Perhaps his most famous success was in saving millions of dollars for du Pont family interests on the court-ordered divestiture of a huge block of General Motors stock. He was able to push through Congress a bill enabling du Pont’s shareholders to pay capital gains taxes, rather than the much higher ordinary income tax, on the shares that were distributed to them. And he did it without lobbying Congress personally, instead directing an imaginative lobbying campaign by du Pont’s president.

At the same time, he was seen as a man who could give counsel on delicate, quasi-political problems. In 1957, Sen. Kennedy asked him to counter an accusation by columnist Drew Pearson that Kennedy aide Theodore Sorenson was the real author of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage.” Pearson had made the charge on an ABC broadcast. It was clear, from notes and manuscripts, that Sorenson had at least given Kennedy extensive help in research and writing. But Clifford not only obtained a network apology, but got an ABC vice president to read on the air the groveling statement that Clifford had drafted — with Sorenson.

Clifford became JFK’s personal lawyer, performing services for him even while supporting rival presidential candidate Symington in the 1960 campaign. Already, Clifford had a special status: Where another man would have been exiled for his service to an opponent, Clifford was respected for a usefulness that transcended political combat. After the election, Kennedy asked Clifford to manage his transition.

To this day Clifford carries secrets about the services he performed as JFK’s personal lawyer. But he writes in his book about the political advice he tendered. For example, it was Clifford whom JFK called in, in the fall of 1961, while the family pondered whether 29-year-old Ted Kennedy should run the following year for the president’s old Senate seat. A family friend was keeping it warm for the next Kennedy, and the decision seemed certain but for one thing: Teddy had cheated on two Spanish exams at Harvard 10 years earlier. “The president and Bobby wanted my judgment as to its effect on their brother’s possible candidacy,” Clifford explains in his book, “and recommendations as to how to deal with it publicly if the family concluded that he should make the race.”

Clifford researched the matter in his lawyerly way, questioning Ted and the classmate who took the exams for him, and concluded the race could be won anyway. Teddy, he counseled, should arrange to explain the incident, as if spontaneously, in answer to a question from a journalist. “The President decided that Teddy should follow the suggestion I had made to surface the matter through an interview with a friendly journalist,” Clifford writes. “The man chosen, Robert Healy of The Boston Globe, wrote the story on March 30, 1962.” Perhaps his strangest assignment, early in the new administration, was JFK’s request that he travel to New York to talk to Joe Kennedy Sr., to try to dissuade him from his insistence that Robert F. Kennedy become attorney general. Clifford would not succeed, as surely JFK knew in advance; it seems likely he wanted to preview for his father, in the person of Clifford, the likely reaction of “establishment” Washington to the controversial appointment.

Just once, President Kennedy leaned heavily on Clifford’s contacts with industry. In 1962, the big steel companies raised prices on the heels of major union wage concessions, in violation of what Kennedy believed was a solid understanding that the companies, too, would show restraint. The president sent Clifford to stare them down, threatening them with antitrust investigations, tax audits and defense contract boycotts.

The new administration cemented Clifford’s credentials as a “wise man.” In an administration striking for its youth, Clifford was able, in his mid-fifties, to seem an elder statesman, and he played it for all it was worth. His canniest decision was not to join the administration. As transition director he said flatly that he would accept no job in the new administration: Only in that way, he said, could he adjudicate among power-hungry job candidates. He turned aside JFK’s tentative suggestions that he become CIA director or chief arms control negotiator.

Kennedy understood perfectly the nature of Clifford’s use to him, and his to Clifford. “Clark is a wonderful fellow,” Kennedy was fond of saying. “In a day when many are seeking a reward for what they contributed to the return of the Democrats to the White House, you don’t hear Clark clamoring. All he asked in return was that we advertise his law firm on the backs of one-dollar bills.”

His way with LBJ

Clifford’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson had cooled during the Kennedy years. But when LBJ became president, Clifford once again became one of Johnson’s chief outside advisers.

As always, some of his advice concerned rough-and-tumble political difficulties. Shortly before the 1964 campaign, for example, Clifford and Abe Fortas were called in when LBJ’s close aide Walter Jenkins was arrested in a homosexual incident at the District YMCA. Clifford and Fortas visited the city’s major newspapers to argue (though unsuccessfully) that the matter should be kept out of the news.

The same year, LBJ was worried that the party would demand the vice presidential nomination for Bobby Kennedy — a prospect the president loathed. It was Clifford who drafted a “talking paper” on how to let Bobby down gently, and Johnson, in his anxiety to handle Kennedy carefully, simply read the paper aloud to RFK.

LBJ was far more apt than President Kennedy to call Clifford in on matters of policy: He was a part of White House deliberations all through the Six-Day War, for example; his book is larded with references to such scenes as joining Johnson in the Situation Room while Johnson talked to Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin on the hotline. But unlike Fortas, who was intensely involved in Johnson’s Great Society, Clifford had little part in the roiling domestic policy of those years.

Clifford handled Johnson astutely: Over and above his own reluctance to return to government, Clifford understood that Johnson was a manipulator and a bully, and was careful never to put himself directly under LBJ’s power. “I had the feeling that from my standpoint, at that period,” he says judiciously, “I would serve him better as an independent adviser than actually going into a job which placed me under his control.”

He turned down — again — the job of CIA director (“I knew that’s not what I wanted to do”). He turned down U.N. ambassador (“I slipped out of that one very quickly”), and attorney general — twice. (Especially attorney general: A good part of Clifford’s practice was antitrust law, a major area of concern for the Justice Department. “I gave as my reason,” he says demurely, “that that was not where my principal interest in government lay.”) He turned down national security assistant and undersecretary of state.

And then came the day, in 1968, when LBJ issued his direct, very presidential request that Clifford kindly join the administration as Robert McNamara’s successor at the Pentagon. “He did not ask me,” recalls Clifford. “He proceeded on the assumption that we already had an agreement.” Johnson had snared him for what was possibly the hardest job in Washington: the management of the Vietnam War.

Three years before, in the summer of 1965, Clifford had warned LBJ against escalating the war. He wrote the president that Vietnam could be a “quagmire,” and that 50,000 American soldiers could die — a remarkably prescient prediction. But once LBJ rejected the advice, Clifford decided to pay the price he had to stay at the table. He decided, he says, that “it does me no good to get off in the corner and sulk because he disagreed with me.” Johnson had made his choice, Clifford says, so “it became our country’s policy and I went ahead and I supported it.”

He supported it with such vigor that by the time he became secretary of defense, in the days after the Tet Offensive, he was known as one of the most fervent hawks in the president’s inner circle. But once assigned personal responsibility for the prosecution of the war, his opinion shifted rapidly, back to his original stance.

Gen. William Westmoreland had just requested an additional 206,000 troops. And in the course of reviewing that request, the new secretary conducted a reappraisal of the entire war effort. He concluded that the United States simply had no viable plan to win the war.

Clark Clifford made up his mind to try to get president and country out of Vietnam. Finally, the frustrated doves in the Pentagon and the White House had an ally of sufficient clout to get through to the president. “It was like being in a John Ford movie,” recalls Harry McPherson, then Johnson’s assistant and chief speechwriter. “It was like the cavalry rode in.”

But one did not change Lyndon Johnson’s mind through frontal assault. Clifford instead bent his every wile to a campaign for change. Richard Fryklund, a former deputy assistant secretary of public affairs at the Pentagon, remembers the detail with which Clifford plotted his course. Before a meeting in which he hoped to score points, “he’d be leaning back in his chair looking up at the ceiling, as if the script were there, and walking himself through it, as we critiqued it,” recalls Fryklund. He rehearsed “down to the little pleasantries. He’d say, ‘At this point, I’ll turn to Dean [Rusk, secretary of state], and I’ll wink.’ And then he’d make a remark — some in joke between the two guys — ‘And then I’ll turn back to the president and say — ‘ And he would have gestures in there.”

Knowing that Johnson had been encouraged to prosecute the war in meetings with the Cold War-era “Wise Men” — men like Dean Acheson, Douglas Dillon, Cyrus Vance and Omar Bradley — Clifford arranged for Johnson to host a dinner to hear these men’s opinions afresh. It was a ploy, as he knew that Acheson, Dillon and others had changed their views on Vietnam, and it had the shocking effect on Johnson that Clifford had hoped.

Johnson had planned a speech on Vietnam for late March. Clifford, with the help of McPherson and others, used it as an opportunity to redirect the policy; by the time March 31 rolled around, Johnson was ready to announce that the United States would halt almost all bombing and to propose peace talks.

“Without question, Clifford played a preeminent — and I believe the decisive — role” in changing Johnson’s policy, wrote former undersecretary of the Air Force Townsend Hoopes in his book “The Limits of Intervention.” “He was the single most powerful and effective catalyst of change . . . He rallied and gave authoritative voice to the informed and restless opposition within the government, pressing the case for change with intellectual daring, high moral courage, inspired ingenuity, and sheer stubborn persistence. It was one of the great individual performances in recent American history, and achieved in the remarkably taut time span of thirty days.”

Johnson also announced on March 31 that he would not seek reelection. Clifford was caught completely by surprise, but continued to the end of the administration to tug a string here, push his luck there, do everything possible to commit the United States to winding down the war. By the time of President Nixon’s inauguration, peace talks were underway. And although Nixon continued to press the war, expanding it into Laos and Cambodia, Clifford’s work had at least limited the American effort.

Clifford’s acts made him a hero to an entire generation of Democrats here, who had watched in horror as their party’s presidents tied the nation’s fate to the Vietnam War. His relationship with Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, never recovered. Though persuaded by Clifford’s campaign, Johnson felt it was a betrayal.

As secretary of defense, accountable to history for his acts, Clifford traded away his most cherished resource — the confidence of the president — for what he perceived as the correct course. It was the kind of conflict Clifford’s Five Commandments were devised to avoid.

It was the finest hour of his career.

With Nixon elected, Clifford went back to full-time private practice. And though the Republicans now controlled the White House, Clifford’s prestige was at an all-time high. He was 62. He was known as a man of both principle and pragmatism. The stage seemed set for the kind of twilight career Washington offers its favorite sons: a selective practice, golf at Burning Tree, a trade mission here and a special diplomatic assignment there. A gradual, dignified retirement.

Two decades later Clifford would be working 12-hour days, around the clock and around the year, at a new career.

He would not go gentle into that good night; he would be driven, instead, toward the darkness of personal scandal.


The man who banked on his good name

Clark Clifford and his threatened reputation

Margery Pepperell Kimball Clifford, known to her friends as Marny, has a reputation for plain speaking. She is explaining what a difficult time her husband has had lately.

How painful it is for him to hear his good name, after all these years, linked to wrongdoing. How much he has aged since investigators began asking how this revered elder statesman came to be fronting for a group of Middle Eastern investors who apparently circumvented U.S. banking laws. How tired he is of saying, over and over, that things are not what they seem.

“The trouble is,” she explains, “you’d say exactly the same things if you were guilty. Think about it — you would.”

She has summarized Clark Clifford’s problem more neatly than reams of investigators’ reports ever could.

“I just find it totally hard to believe he’s gotten into any kind of problems,” says Democratic lawyer Berl Bernhard, voicing the common-sensical puzzlement that is almost universally shared in Washington: “One, he doesn’t need to. And two, you know, the thought that someone in some way misled or deceived him — it’s possible, but it makes me say, Good Lord, these people must be very clever. Because he is not what you’d call ingenuous.”

These people are the high-rolling bankers who Clifford says may — may, he emphasizes — have taken advantage of his good name. The story is complicated in its details, but simple in its essence:

In the late ‘70s, a group orchestrated by a Luxembourg-based bank, Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), tried to buy a Washington-based bank holding company, Financial General Bankshares. BCCI was a sprawling and secretive international bank, with tendrils everywhere but little accountability to any nation that might regulate its operations. The American bank resisted, and the deal disintegrated under a mass of lawsuits.

Subsequently, a group of Middle Eastern investors — all of them banking clients of BCCI — offered to buy the bank.

Federal and state regulators were concerned: Were these investors fronting for BCCI? No, the feds were told. Was BCCI lending them money to buy the bank? No — and furthermore the investors intended to be passive investors, with no interest in the running of the bank. Would BCCI be in any way involved in the running of Financial General? No. Its only possible role was to be an occasional adviser to the investors, who after all were long-term BCCI clients.

The man who made all these representations on the investors’ behalf was Clark Clifford. Other lawyers were involved, of course, and some of the wealthy investors themselves traveled from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to explain their intentions to a special meeting of Federal Reserve Board officials and state banking regulators in April 1981.

But it was Clark Clifford, silver-haired and silken-voiced elder statesman, who introduced the investors, vouched for them and gave the regulators his personal assurance that the deal was in order. “There is no function of any kind on the part of BCCI,” Clifford told the hearing. “I know of no present relationship. I know of no planned future relationship that exists.”

He himself had agreed, he added, to act as chairman of the bank, ensuring an important layer of insulation between the day-to-day operations of the bank and the passive investors in the Middle East. He had already recruited, for the prospective board of directors, such distinguished Americans as his friend Stuart Symington, former senator from Missouri.

“I am comforted,” he told the hearing about the deal, “that I know that it’s good for our country.”

The deal went through, the company was renamed First American Bankshares, and Clifford, at 75, became chairman of the largest bank holding company in the Washington area. Robert A. Altman, 33, his closest colleague in the law firm Clifford & Warnke, became president. Neither of them had ever run any business larger than a 20-lawyer law firm.

Today First American Bankshares is an $11 billion enterprise with subsidiaries in six states and the District, and more than 180 bank branches in the Washington area alone. But rumors have surrounded the real ownership of the company ever since its sale. In 1988, a BCCI officer arrested in a federal money-laundering sting operation told a wired undercover agent that BCCI owned First American. Clark Clifford, he said, was BCCI’s attorney in Washington, and a formidable figure: “I mean,” the man said, “Clark Clifford is sort of the godfather of the Democratic Party.”

The rumors were borne out early this year when BCCI, under new management and under pressure from investigators, acknowledged illegally owning a controlling interest in First American. At several points, an audit showed, First American’s nominal investors bought new shares in First American’s holding company, financing the purchases with loans from BCCI; the investors never paid off the loans, and so BCCI gained control of the shares by default.

The Federal Reserve Board ordered BCCI to divest itself of whatever shares it holds in First American. BCCI filed its proposed divestiture plan with the Fed last week.

The complexity of the relationship between the two banks is increased by the fact that Clifford’s law firm represented both BCCI and First American for most of the 1980s. Clifford and Altman played a leading role in shaping BCCI’s defense against the money-laundering charges. These charges added a lurid taint to the story when investigators learned that some of the laundered money, funds of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega, was moved through an account in First American.

Yet Clifford and his partner have disclaimed any knowledge of BCCI involvement in First American’s affairs. They still speak of the problem in the subjunctive voice, about the shares BCCI allegedly, or possibly, controls. Clifford has been in full operating control of the bank, he says. If any illegality took place, Clifford says, it was done behind his back. “It wasn’t anything that we did. We haven’t done a thing. We’ve run the bank and run it honestly.”

There has been, in friends’ and allies’ comments about Clifford, a faith that his problems will work out: that somehow Clark will explain everything. Says his friend and longtime client Pamela Harriman, “It seems incredible to me, with all of Clark’s long knowledge of people, that this was possible. But I’m absolutely convinced that there was no wrongdoing done with his knowledge.”

That was before Sunday, when The Washington Post reported that Clifford and Altman were able to buy stock in First American’s holding company in 1986 and 1987 with money loaned to them almost risk-free by BCCI. Between them they have made $9.8 million — two-thirds to Clifford and one-third to Altman — in pretax profit by reselling 60 percent of the stock to a man who also financed the purchase with a loan from BCCI.

Here, too, Clifford and Altman say everything is aboveboard: They bought stock in lieu of compensation, they say. Clifford has been paid only $50,000 in salary each year, and Altman has not drawn a salary. They paid interest and fees on the loans. They had the permission of the directors of First American’s holding company, and filed the required notices of the stock purchases with American banking authorities.

But the directors of the holding company, who approved the deal, numbered only four. Two of them were longtime friends of Clifford’s — Symington, now deceased, and retired Lt. Gen. Elwood P. Quesada. The other two were Clark Clifford and Robert Altman.

The most striking things about the deal are that Clifford and Altman never had to put up any money of their own, and that they were able to sell the stock for three times what they paid for it.

It is the development that takes the story beyond the realm of international wire transfers and the complexities of offshore banking, and into the readily grasped realm of political nightmare.

“I think it makes everything that much worse,” says one heavyweight lawyer. “Because it reflects on his statements, and Altman’s statements, that they were operating the bank independent of BCCI. Why would BCCI, in effect, give them that money? It makes it all much stickier.”

The partner theory

How could a man who valued his reputation so highly have been either seduced or gulled into lending that reputation to clients who used it so crassly?

Why did a man in his seventies and eighties, after a career like Clifford’s, borrow this trouble?

For every unanswered question, some admirers of Clifford’s like to steer a reporter toward a single answer: that his problems are the fault of his younger partner. Go get Altman, they whisper, off the record, at interview’s end. It’s got to be Altman.

For the past decade and more, Altman has been Clifford’s closest associate, working with him on his most important cases and handling the day-to-day business of running the bank. And whereas Clifford had been a millionaire for decades at the time the bank deal was struck, Clifford’s friends say, Altman was a nakedly ambitious young man still on the verge of the big time. Perhaps he pushed Clifford into the deal, they say, or misled him along the way about the true nature of First American’s relationship with BCCI.

Clifford and Altman appear a study in contrasts: Altman, now 44, is married to actress (formerly Wonder Woman) Lynda Carter, who passes, in Washington, for glitz. He lives in an enormous new mansion in Potomac, where he throws parties for an enormous collection of new friends. When Altman and Clifford work cases together, it is said in the legal community, they are a formidable tag team: Clifford is the genial good cop who calls up and confers the compliment of humbly introducing himself to a new adversary; Altman is the one who calls later and threatens scorched earth if you don’t back down.

It could be seen as the familiar case of the powerful man who assigns his more disagreeable deeds to a surrogate, as George Bush did with Lee Atwater. But the bond between Clifford and Altman is also a personal one: At this point Altman may be his mentor’s chief intimate. Clifford was best man at Altman’s wedding, and became the godfather of Altman’s son, James Clifford Altman.

“It’s almost like a father-son relationship, in a way,” confirms Marny Clifford. Clifford is the father of three daughters and very much a man of his generation where gender roles are concerned: His firm has no women partners, and he is given to referring to female support staff as “girls.” Altman says, “I suppose he wanted to pass on to someone that which he had learned over 50 or 60 years.”

Clifford firmly closes off any implication that Altman could have acted at any point without his knowledge. “I have been in charge of the matter,” he says firmly. “I have set the policy and he has complied with the policy I have set.”

Altman echoes that statement — and minimizes his own role in the pair’s decision to become involved in the operations of the bank, saying, “I think the whole idea kind of challenged [Clifford]. He took it on and I went along for the ride.” He amends himself quickly: “Well, that’s a little casual.”

Since the stock deal was revealed, only a few of Clifford’s friends cling to some hope that Altman will be shown to have abused Clifford’s trust.

But all along, those tempted to attribute the scandal to the hunger of the younger man have underestimated the role of Clifford’s own drive, a force so insistent that it has kept him working long past the point where other men, willingly or not, have come to rest.

To understand what kept Clifford striving, you would have to go far back, to the era before radio. To a time when lamplighters walked the neighborhoods of St. Louis in the evening, a day when little boys read Horatio Alger books for ideas of how to be men.

What his father taught

In his great gift for self-presentation, Clifford carries most visibly the legacy of his mother, Georgia McAdams Clifford. She was the sister of the dashing liberal editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Clark McAdams, and her family were all vibrant, colorful souls.

Georgia Clifford was a professional storyteller. She was president of the National Story Tellers’ League, and in the ‘30s she had her own show on the CBS radio network. Quite deliberately, she taught Clifford and his sister to revere language, and to present themselves with flair. He believes she is one of the reasons he was drawn to the high dramatics of trial law as his first career, and the source of the subtler thespian gifts he brought to his role in Washington.

But the most important legacy was his father’s. Clifford’s bond with his father was a powerful one: It was not until his father died, he writes, that he felt free to join the Navy, setting in motion his entire new career.

Neither in person nor in his book does Clifford use the word “failure” to describe his father, but this is the sense that hangs heavy in his descriptions. “It’s going to sound queer,” Clifford says, “but I think he felt that the greatest accomplishment of his life was getting my mother.”

Frank Clifford’s career was with the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and as Clifford grew up his father was making the slow rise through the executive ranks — partly by virtue of having as a mentor the railroad’s executive vice president. Clifford recalls of his father, “There was a spring in his step and a new sparkle in his eye . . . And, of course, the railroad was my father’s whole life. He never worked for anybody else.” But the boss died suddenly, of a heart attack. New management was brought in, and Frank Clifford’s career was swiftly, permanently sidetracked. His spirit, his son says, was crushed.

“The spring went out of his step and the sparkle went out of his eye,” Clifford recalls, “and I was old enough then that he could talk with me about it . . . And the lesson from that my father passed on to me — and he meant to pass it on to me — was, try to plan your life so that it is not dependent upon others . . . The more you can construct and structure your own life based upon your own efforts and the less subject your life is to the direction and control of others, the happier you’re going to be.”

The lesson, absorbed when the son was in college, could be traced through Clifford’s entire career: going into law and then setting up his own firm, where no single client could make or break him. Resisting government appointments by Kennedy and especially the domineering Johnson.

But even before Frank Clifford’s career collapsed, he had striven to give his son a stern message about work. “From the time I was four or five,” Clifford writes, “he began to impress me with the fact that to live was to work.”

Look at Clifford’s life through the lens of that proposition, and a pattern announces itself. He graduated from high school at 15. He had ulcers by the time he was in his thirties. The word he uses most often to characterize his life is discipline.

“He’s a true workaholic,” says Marny Clifford, “one of the worst I’ve ever seen. He’s on a treadmill — he can’t get off it.”

“Except for golf, I can’t think of anything he really enjoys outside of the office,” says Pamela Harriman.

Lawyer Paul Warnke says of his 84-year-old partner, “Clark is here certainly always five days a week, usually six and sometimes seven.”

“He doesn’t like vacations,” says his wife. “Hates them.” For years, he took only a week’s vacation every year — an all-male golf trip to a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., house made available to him by Phillips Petroleum, on whose board he used to sit.

For the past nine years, since he began running the bank, he says proudly, he hasn’t taken any vacation.

The one essential

Clark Clifford can’t possibly need the money . . . This is the bedrock, puzzled response to Clifford’s troubles, in living rooms and law firms all around Washington.

And it’s true. Not only does he have more money than he needs; he doesn’t especially seem to enjoy the money he has. The house where the Cliffords have lived since 1950 appears to bear this out. It is a historic landmark, a 19th-century clapboard farmhouse where J.E.B. Stuart’s men were bivouacked during the Civil War. The land it occupies, just off Rockville Pike, is quite valuable.

And yes, the Cliffords have servants, including the man who answers the door and later brings iced tea on a little round platter to Marny Clifford and her visitor. And yes, there are sleek dark cars in the garage, a dowdy Fleetwood and a more dashing black Jaguar.

But there are few other signs of wealth in this house, which displays the confident negligence of the upper class. Paint is cracking on the wall of the main stairway; in the living room the slipcovers are worn dull, having served their masters since 1931. In the dining room, there are small tendrils of dust on the walls, near the ceiling. Pointing out her collection of Chinese porcelain, displayed on the walls of the room, Marny Clifford says, with reflexive Yankee frugality, that of course these are pieces she’s had for ages: They’ve gotten so expensive she can’t afford to buy any more.

Clark Clifford just doesn’t care much about possessions, or social life, or any of the things that most Americans think of as sources of pleasure. “Clark is a very simple soul, he really is,” Marny Clifford explains. “I can’t remember him ever, in all the years I’ve been married to him, wanting something. I can think of a thousand things I want; most people can. But he is very strange that way.”

There is, however, something he needs.

She finishes her tour of the house in the den, where the memorabilia of his career are displayed. She points at the photos on the wall nearest the front of the house, of the friends and acquaintances who enlivened five decades of life in Washington. They are all pictures of dead men.

“Stu,” says Marny Clifford sadly, at the photo of the late Stuart Symington, for decades Clifford’s best friend. “Omar Bradley, he’s dead.” She points, and points again. “Tom Clark’s dead. Bill Douglas is dead.” She shakes her head. “Bob Lovett, Averell. Jimmy Forrestal, he’s dead.”

Clifford had outlived, by 1981, almost all of his old colleagues.

He had outlived his presidents and, in a way, his party, which had lost a landslide to Ronald Reagan. Although he had been consulted from time to time by President Carter, assigned the odd troubleshooting trip abroad, it had been years since he was a White House regular.

He had even outlived many of his clients. “I think that as you get to be mid-seventies, you look around and all of a sudden your clients have retired,” says partner Warnke. “The [corporate] general counsels are years younger than you are, so as a result your younger partners are much more apt to get new business than you are. And Clark, I think, did not want to have nothing to do.”

It seems possible, then, that the Arab buyers of Financial General Bankshares had something incalculably valuable to offer the 75-year-old Clark Clifford.

To live is to work.

“I think, at the time, without considering, I was looking at other contemporaries who were 75, looking to see what they did,” Clifford says. “Some of them would go with their wives each morning to the market and help with the marketing, help pushing those carts and all. Well, I didn’t find that very appealing. Another was to go down to the post office every morning and get the mail. That wasn’t anything that excited me much. A lot of them go to Florida and disappear. Some of them just sit on the front porch and rock and wait to die.” He infuses the syllable with drama, then adds the dryly comic punctuation: “That didn’t appeal to me either.”

Both the darkness and the humor of this meditation have a calculated quality. If a true feeling animates it, it sounds like contempt for all those cart-pushers and mail-fetchers.

Clifford recalls that “back when I used to take vacations, about the second or third or fourth day I would have had enough.” He gestures around at his dusky office, cocooned by its heavy drapes.

“This is my life here. This is what I do.”

Tallying the loss

“I had been me-tic-u-lous-ly careful through the years that I not get involved in a posture that would be embarrassing for me,” says Clark Clifford, tapping a long finger on his desk. “It is very easy to do in Washington. And it didn’t happen to me. I’ve been here all these years, you see, then I ran into this recent problem.”

This recent problem. In a series of interviews, Clifford replies to questions about the bank with a quality that looks very much like bafflement. Again and again, he makes arguments that run counter to everything Clark Clifford has stood for in more than four decades of Washington life.

“When people say, ‘Oh, Clifford must have known,’ the fact is, I would have been the last one to know,” says Clifford. “I would have been the last one [BCCI] would have told . . . Because maybe they did use my good name at the beginning. Maybe they did depend to some extent upon my reputation. All right, if that’s an asset then it’s an asset. But they wouldn’t tell me what was going on, because the day they would have told me was the day that I would have left them.”

I was blind, says the man who made a career of seeing around corners.

“At the time, under the conditions that existed, it all seemed perfectly appropriate,” he says of his stock deal. “Let me add that there’s nothing illegal in any way with the deal regarding the purchase of the stocks.”

I am within the letter of the law, says the man who always understood — who taught some of the most powerful men of his time — that in Washington, once you are reduced to arguing the law you have already lost the case.

Only one, or at most two, people know what really happened in Clifford’s stewardship of the bank, down to his most personal motives. Whether he led or followed; whether he was involved from the start in a foreign bank’s scheme to gain control of an American outlet, or passively allowed it to develop behind his unassailable image; whether Clifford was lied to or deluded himself.

But the truth is that Clifford is proud of his bank. His picture has graced its annual reports; he once even appeared in a First American commercial. When his friend and fellow lawyer Edward Bennett Williams was dying of cancer, Clifford was anxious to show him around the bank before he was too ill to go out. Lawyer Bob Strauss describes how he, Clifford and Williams had lunch at the bank’s offices, in the shadow of the great, grave oil portrait of Clark Clifford, Bank Chairman. “It was almost like a father showing off accomplishments to his son,” says Strauss.

Clark Clifford’s ultimate mistake may have been that, after a lifetime of making Washington believe in his legend, he fully believed in it himself.

Clifford came along in an era when great corporate wealth was learning how to counter a whole new generation of government regulation. He became the fig leaf assuring postwar Washingtonians that all the profitable transactions here between public and private power, business as usual, are simply the workings of a mighty democracy.

If Clark Clifford could be what he was — “adviser to the presidents” — at the same time he was making millions of dollars, year in and year out, working for the biggest corporations in America; if he could nip across Lafayette Square from his office to help Lyndon Johnson sort out the Six-Day War in between helping General Electric and McDonnell-Douglas and Knight-Ridder and scores more to palliate the wearisome meddling of the federal government; if Clark Clifford could do all this, then surely the . . . friendly relationship of political power and corporate wealth in Washington is just the natural order of things.

As Mr. Integrity, the man who wrote the warranty of Washington’s basic virtue, Clifford has been selling his reputation for a long, long time. It was as heady a role as exists in Washington, perhaps in all of corporate America. He seems baffled, so late in life, that the safe haven of his reputation cannot protect the man who needs it now.

Clifford says he regrets nothing. He looks back a decade, to his initial involvement in the bank, and says, “Given the facts as I knew them then, I would make the same decision.”

But sitting in his curtained office, closed away from the White House, the Capitol, the power centers of the city he once owned, he does say he is full of misgiving. “I’m mystified,” says Clark Clifford. “And I want to tell you that in the process I’ve lost something that I worked for for 62 years.

“To a certain extent I’ve lost my good name, and I’m deeply sorry about that.”

Memorable pieces from 50 years of Style

ESSAY: The Style section at 50: Still sharp, snarky and soulful — and always a work in progress

“The Law of Twelve, Which Makes Washington Whirl, and the Boy from Pocatello” by Sally Quinn, June 23, 1974

“New Hampshire is a Fraud” by Henry Allen, Feb. 11, 1988

“The First Father: William Jefferson Blythe and the back roads of fate” by Gene Weingarten, June 20, 1993

“He Speaks” by Martha Sherrill, September 7, 1995

“White Girl?” by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Aug. 8, 1999

“The Couch That Warped Space-Time” by Hank Stuever, Feb. 23, 2000

“Dick Cheney, Dressing Down” by Robin Givhan, Jan. 28, 2005

“A Butler Well Served by this Election” By Wil Haygood, Nov. 7, 2008