A Matter Of Influence

Clark Clifford's memoirs richly detail his public life. But what about his work for private clients?

A casual reader, glancing through Clark Clifford's memoirs, might think the subject served as a high government official throughout the entire cold-war era. Clifford's White House pass never expired, at least during the days when the Democrats still owned the executive branch. He always seemed to be on the inside, playing poker with Harry Truman on the presidential yacht, sunning with John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach, careering around the LBJ Ranch in the presidential Cadillac. Yet in fact after 1950 Clifford only held a government job for a bit over 10 months. The rest of the time he earned his living as a private lawyer for large corporations and rich men. It was a very good living. Clifford earned millions-for his wisdom, no doubt, but also for his great influence in the capital.

(709 pages. Random House. $25) is a chronicle of the public Clifford, the White House sage who served his country well for 40 years. It is an admirable and often fascinating account of a man who advised presidents with prudence and wiliness. Were it not for recent headlines, the book would stand alone as a significant piece of history. But the scandal now swirling around Clifford puts the superlawyer in a different and more troubling light (box). The story of what Washington superlawyers like Clifford really do could reveal much about the true workings of Washington. But that is not the book that Clifford chose to write. *

Clifford's political acumen has long been recognized, As a young White House aide, he was a principal architect of the greatest upset in political history, Truman's triumph over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. (The Gridiron Club, Washington's journalist in crowd, staged a skit of President Truman as a dummy, sitting on the lap of a ventriloquist made up to look like Clifford.) To the Kennedy family, Clifford was a full-service _I_consigliere_i_ : he performed every role from establishing President Kennedy's national-security apparatus to finding a weekend getaway for the First Family.

But Clifford was far more than a courtier. He could be prescient and courageous. In 1965, as Lyndon Johnson weighed the fatal decision to escalate, Clifford warned that Vietnam would be a "quagmire." Although Johnson ignored his advice, for the next two years Clifford loyally supported the war effort. But in 1968, when LBJ made him secretary of defense, Clifford turned dove with a passion. Cynics might say Clifford played the hawk from 1965 to 1967 just to wangle a cabinet position. But the fact remains he was willing to risk his long friendship with LBJ to try to extricate the United States from a losing war. Clifford's account of this ultimately fruitless struggle, which occupies about a third of the book, is at once tense and moving.

Clifford's story is not unfamiliar to historians and journalists who have trooped up to the superlawyer's dark paneled office across from the White House to listen to his rich store of anecdotes. And Clifford's co-author, Richard Holbrooke, an investment banker and former State Department official, faithfully captures both Clifford's sense of drama and subtly self-aggrandizing style. But while the authors describe Clifford's love of the "art of persuasion," they fail to show how he used it for paying clients. Clifford opens a brief, nine-page account of his legal practice by repeating the speech he gave to one of his first clients, the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. "I do not consider that this firm will have any influence of any kind here in Washington. . ." Clifford intoned. "If you want influence, you should consider going elsewhere." He delivered that little talk to so many clients over the years his law associates could recite it with him.

Clients must have had trouble suppressing smiles. Certainly, Clifford established a reputation as a man who could fix most any problem with the federal government. It would be interesting to know, for instance, how Clifford managed to save the du Pont family up to $100 million in taxes in the early '60s when they were forced to sell their holdings in General Motors. According to Joseph Goulden's "The Superlawyers," Clifford helped engineer a special tax bill through Congress-yet never registered as a lobbyist. In his memoirs, Clifford does not even mention the case.

When Clifford left the White House in 1950, the influence game was even sleazier than it is today. He consciously set out to be different from wheeler-dealers like Thomas (Tommy the Cork) Corcoran, who was so brazen that he lobbied Supreme Court justices in their chambers. Clifford carefully nurtured a reputation for integrity and detachment-not only because he was ethical, but also because he was shrewd. Because Clifford was not promiscuous about using influence, he had more credibility-and as a result far more influence.

Until recently, that is. Now it appears that Clifford allowed his good name to be bought by a group of Arab investors who wanted to secretly gain control of an American bank (box). In a heavily lawyered footnote hastily tacked on to his memoirs, Clifford suggests he was the victim of a con. But his defense is made less credible by the fact that he made more than $6 million in a sweetheart stock deal with the people who were supposedly conning him.

Could Clark Clifford really have been so naive on his own account? He is famous for his ability to warn clients away from hidden dangers. And if he sold his name and reputation once for nefarious purpose, could he have done so before?

His memoirs offer no clue. All autobiographies present a selective view of their subjects, and Clifford can hardly be expected to indict himself. He can argue that the matters of his clients were of far less import than, say, the 1948 election or the Vietnam War. But the influence business is an important story. Its growth helps explain why Congress is now so hopelessly enmeshed in special-interest polities. Clifford himself is probably the most prominent exemplar of Democratic officials who created big government and then went into private practice to profit from it. The story is more subtle and complex than the current caricature of Clifford as a "Mr. Fixit" for some greedy Arabs. If the headlines don't go away, Clifford may come to regret that he didn't do more to explain it.

* Evan Thomas is the author of a biography of Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams to be published in the fall.


After 53 years as a lawyer and an adviser to presidents from Truman to Carter, Clark Clifford in 1982 took the job as chairman of First American Bankshares because it presented "a rather exciting opportunity." More so, it turns out, than he could have imagined. In the past few months he has been investigated by the Justice Department and a New York grand jury, accused in the press of lying to federal banking regulators, and embarrassed by a Federal Reserve Board directive suggesting that a drug-corrupted foreign bank had gained control of his bank.

Clifford's troubles stem from statements he made at a meeting at the Fed in 1981. Regulators had been uneasy about approving purchase of a U.S. bank by a group of Arab investors who were suspected of being fronts for the reputedly sleazy Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Clifford, who arranged the meeting and whose law firm represented BCCI, persuaded regulators that BCCI would have no financial control over the new bank. The bank was re-named First American, and Clifford was named its chairman. Since then questions about BCCI's relationship to First American have turned up periodically-particularly after BCCI pleaded guilty in 1990 to laundering drug money through an account at First American. Last March regulators disclosed that BCCI had gained control of First American through a secretive stock scheme. Indignant, Clifford claimed he had been duped.

When The Washington Post revealed last week that Clifford personally pocketed millions from the BCCI connection, his protests seemed less credible still. BCCI loaned Clifford $12.2 million in 1986-87 so he could buy more than 5,400 shares of First American. He couldn't lose: if he failed to repay, BCCI could claim only the stock itself. In 1988 he sold 60 percent of his shares for $21.8 million. He repaid the loan with interest, netting $6.6 million in profit; he also kept 2,200 shares of debt-free stock then valued at $15 million.

Clifford denies any impropriety. He notes that First American has thrived under his tenure and says the stock acquisition was designed to offset his unusually low bank salary of $50,000 annually. Maybe so, but the loan raises questions for some of the regulators who approved the purchase of First American nine years ago. "You and I can't get that kind of loan," says a former New York superintendent of banking. Moreover, the revelations cast further doubt on Clifford's insistence that he had no idea of the relationship between his client, BCCI, and the bank he operated. Federal and New York state criminal investigators continue to probe that link.