FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford
By Douglas Frantz and David McKean
Little, Brown 450pp $24.95
For two generations, Clark McAdams Clifford personified the Washington Establishment. He was Harry Truman's adviser, John Kennedy's lawyer, Lyndon Johnson's Defense Secretary, a confidant to powerful senators, and the capital's most sought-after corporate attorney. So when his reputation was shattered by a scandal involving the Bank of Credit & Commerce International during the early '90s, Washington was understandably shocked.
Now, the mystery of why Clifford's career came to such ruin has been solved. Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford details how an ambitious man's pursuit of power, prestige, and money can run amok when his capacity for self-delusion is great enough. New York Times reporter Douglas Frantz and David McKean, an aide to Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.), play objective reporters in an exhaustively researched biography. But fair as they are, they paint an unflattering portrait of Clifford--and the influence-peddling industry that he spawned.
Indeed, Clifford was the prototype for the modern-day lobbyist. "He reshaped the way lobbying worked in the nation's capital, making it respectable and even desirable to trade quietly on relationships with government officials while telling clients with a straight face that he had no influence," Frantz and McKean write.
Today, Clifford's approach is known as the revolving door: Work in a high post and then cash out for millions as a "consultant." The key is convincing everyone--including yourself--that you're honorable and that your clients' interests and your own coincide with those of the nation. As the authors report: "Clifford believed it was his definition of what was right that counted."
For example, as President Truman's White House counsel, Clifford took credit for plotting Truman's startling upset of Thomas Dewey in 1948. Only decades later, after he had prospered as the widely credited mastermind of that victory, did Clifford confess that the campaign's strategy had been the brainchild of James Rowe, a former aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Another troubling story: Over a period of many years, Clifford lent several thousand dollars to his close friend, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Yet Clifford saw no conflict in arguing a corporate client's case before the court. Today's ethics laws bar such financial entanglements.
Then there are dozens of cases in which the superlawyer used his government contacts to win favorable regulatory rulings or tax breaks for the likes of Howard Hughes, Phillips Petroleum, the DuPont family, and Knight-Ridder. Yet he would insist to each client that he did not wield "any influence of any kind" in Washington.
Surely Clifford was fooling only himself. His stature continued to grow along with his legal victories, thanks to another Washington art form he invented: press spin. Starting in his White House days, Clifford would cultivate close relations with influential journalists, feeding them political tidbits as an anonymous source and winning glowing press coverage in return.
But then Clifford overreached. In the late 1970s, he agreed to help BCCI acquire an American bank, Financial General Bankshares of Washington. BCCI, headquartered in Luxembourg, was a shadowy bank founded by a Pakistani banker, and it would later be accused of laundering drug money and aiding unsavory characters ranging from Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal to Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. When federal regulators blocked the acquisition, Clifford spent four years engineering Financial General's takeover--ostensibly by a group of Arab investors, with BCCI acting only as a paid consultant. The sale went through in 1982, after Clifford gave his word that BCCI had no direct investment in the bank. He was rewarded with the bank's chairmanship, and over the next 10 years, Clifford and his law partner, Robert Altman, received $40 million in fees and rigged stock sales--all financed by BCCI.
After word broke that BCCI was the real owner of the bank, Clifford and Altman were indicted in New York for lying about the arrangement. Clifford never stood trial because of a heart ailment, and Altman was acquitted because the prosecution had no smoking gun that proved he and Clifford knew BCCI secretly owned Financial General. But Frantz and McKean make a convincing case that, at the very least, Clifford had to suspect the truth.
On two counts, the book falls short. The writing is long-winded and flat. We are reminded endlessly, for example, that Clifford is tall and handsome and that he stole credit for Truman's election. The more serious weakness: The authors take us to the water's edge and then stop. Was Clifford a liar or a dupe in the BCCI affair? They don't render a verdict, citing no "conclusive" evidence. Readers will have no trouble making up their minds: $40 million will prompt anyone to look the other way.
Clifford's downfall is a tragic reminder that greed clouds the judgments of the most distinguished figures. His tale also reveals a sadder truth. Washington is home for all too many high-powered Clark Cliffords who win plaudits as statesmen even as they're exploiting public service to accumulate private wealth. And despite his comeuppance, Clifford is still their role model.