The Pain Of A Power Broker

A bank scandal stains a famous elder statesman

In the dark-paneled office, the curtains were closed, blocking out the view of the White House. The long, elegant fingers formed an inverted V, like a steeple. The face was lined with age and worry, but the words were as ever precisely chosen. "It's been an unattractive period for me," said Clark Clifford. In his courtly, mellifluous voice, the silver-haired lawyer spoke of the "pain" and "anger" he felt.

At 84, Clifford should be feeling nothing but a sense of accomplishment. Next week, The New Yorker will begin excerpting his memoirs, "Counsel to the President." The book tells how he engineered "Give 'Em Hell" Harry Truman's upset over Tom Dewey in 1948, how he dispensed sage personal and political advice to the Kennedy family, how he stood up to Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam in 1968, how he helped rescue Jimmy Carter from the Bert Lance affair, how he persuaded Jim Wright to step down as speaker of the House in 1989--in short, how he wielded more public power than any private lawyer in Washington since World War II. It is a chronicle of how the mighty came to Clifford in times of trouble, and how he helped them.

Now Clark Clifford is the one in trouble. Last week he found himself fencing with Mike Wallace, the "60 Minutes" inquisitor, denying that he had acted as a front for a drug-corrupted foreign bank. In New York, a grand jury is probing whether Clifford and his partners lied to federal regulators. For 62 years he practiced law "without a cloud," sighed Clifford as he gloomily surveyed a stack of unfavorable press clippings on his desk. "Now this."

"This" is a complicated story of how Washington's largest bank holding company, First American Bankshares, Inc., came to be secretly controlled by an Arab-owned bank, BCCI, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. BCCI is better known these days as the Bank of Crooks and Criminals International, thanks to its admitted laundering of drug money. Under government pressure, BCCI agreed last week to cut its ties to First American. Clifford has been for almost a decade the chairman of First American, and he has represented BCCI since 1978. In 1981 Clifford assured federal regulators BCCI had no control over his bank. The question now is whether he was the deceiver--or the deceived.

Clifford has always guarded his reputation. Before taking on clients, Clifford always tells them that if they are looking for "influence in Washington" they should look "elsewhere." He hates the term "fixer" and says he does not even lobby. His friends naturally tease him about this. Edward Bennett Williams, the late great trial lawyer, once acted out a pantomime of Clifford receiving a delegation of Arabs in his office. He imitated Clifford gravely telling the visiting sheiks, "You understand, of course, that I can only get you access." Then Williams pretended to be an Arab grinning and winking as he shoved a bag of gold across Clifford's desk. Clifford watched Williams's performance with some distaste. "Now Ed," he interrupted, "you know it doesn't work that way."

In fact, as Williams knew, it doesn't. Most Washington lawyers regard Clifford as a shrewd adviser and dignified advocate before Washington courts and regulatory agencies. "On the scale of sleazy influence peddler to squeaky clean, Clark is squeaky clean," says Lloyd Cutler, another Washington power lawyer. Still, businessmen don't pay Clifford as much as $10,000 for a phone call just to hear his advice. It did not hurt Clifford's power of persuasion to be a close friend of such Hill potentates as Robert Kerr, the legendary power in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s and '60s.

What the Arabs who own BCCI bought from Clifford was his reputation for integrity. Bank regulators say they went along with the purchase of First American by a group of Arab investors on the strength of Clifford's word. "We would have knocked it out of the box if we knew the BCCI connection," said Muriel Siebert, former New York superintendent of banks. "Now that the connection has surfaced, I think he's got a lot of explaining to do."

Clifford insists he had no idea BCCI executives had conspired to take over his bank. They never interfered with his operational control or tried to use the bank's assets for any nefarious purpose. "Nothing triggered my antennae," he said. Clifford's many friends in Washington believe him. But they note that no lawyer ever had better antennae for trouble than Clifford. Why did his instinct fail him this time?

One explanation might be money. Congressional investigators estimate Clifford and his firm made up to $10 million a year from business generated by the bank and its Arab investors. "Totally incredible," says Clifford, who says he makes perhaps one tenth as much. Clifford, who for years ate lunch on a stool in Peoples drug store, says he was "wealthy enough" long before he came to the bank.

Clifford's own explanation for his dip into the unfamiliar world of banking at the age of 75 was a horror of growing old and useless. He did not want to "go to Florida and vegetate" or "sit on the porch and wait to die," he said. This explanation sounds plausible to friends who have watched Clifford assiduously trying to improve his golf game as an octogenarian. Clifford is extraordinarily disciplined and driven, says Washington lawyer Bob Strauss. "He smokes one cigarette a day, after dinner, and he looks forward to it from the moment he gets up," says Strauss.

Clifford is proud that he helped turn around a bank that was "dead in the water" when he and his partners took over. His aged face lights up when he describes this "rather exciting opportunity." Then he grows weary and pained. "If I have been deceived, then I am more embarrassed than I have ever been in my whole life." For a man who has floated serenely above the scandals that ebb and flow in the capital, embarrassment is a new--and excruciating--experience.