Books

March 31, 1996

Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford


By Douglas Frantz and David McKean. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995. 464 pp. $24.95.


      Though he spent only six of his fifty years in Washington working for the government, Clark Clifford came to be one of the nation's most important and influential men. Indeed, in a new biography of Clifford, Friends in High Places, writers Douglas Frantz and David McKean J.D. '86 argue that "No lawyer dominated an era in the way Clark Clifford dominated his." In their effort to show how and why this was the case, Frantz and McKean trace Clifford's career, from his rather humble start in Washington as a World War II naval aide to his commanding position as one of the nation's most powerful, respected, and wealthy purveyors of advice and counsel.

      But the authors wish to do more than illuminate the twists and turns of an intriguing twentieth-century life; they want to find the roots of the behavior that led to Clifford's fall from grace at the end of his illustrious career. The book's dramatic denouement is the scandal over the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which embroiled Clifford and left his public image badly tarnished. "He had come to accept," the authors argue, "that somehow he had been granted immunity from the rules that governed the behavior of others, even when the rules changed and he did not. He operated above the mores that restrained others, safe in the assurance that his own judgment and wisdom would keep him out of trouble."

      In light of the authors' own professions and interests, the purpose and organization of the book is not surprising. Frantz covered the BCCI scandal as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and McKean, now a special counsel at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, was one of the chief investigators in the Senate inquiry that led to BCCI's downfall. Their interest in Clifford comes from their encounter with him at the end of his career. Their motivation for looking back is to try to explain to themselves (and to their readers) the enigmatic man they came to know: a seemingly infallible figure who closed his career with a major misstep.

      Had it not been for World War II, Clark Clifford probably would have lived his life as a successful and prominent lawyer in his hometown of St. Louis. At the beginning of the war, the hard-working Clifford had a promising career under way, and a young family of three daughters. Though he could have continued to perform war service through the National Guard, he chose instead to enlist in the Navy Reserves. In short order he found himself in Washington working in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Jake Vardaman, a prominent St. Louis banker who had become President Truman's chief naval aide, brought Clifford to the White House as an assistant. Soon Clifford was asked to take on duties for Samuel Rosenman, Truman's de facto chief of staff. The young lawyer made himself immediately useful, not only on substantive issues but also as the organizer of the president's famous eight-handed poker games.

      Truman took a liking to the young fellow Missourian, and soon Clifford found himself mingling with the men who would shape the postwar world in America, including James Forrestal, Stuart Symington, W. Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John J. McCloy Jr., Dean Acheson, and George Kennan. A memo on re-election strategy sent by Clifford to the president in November 1947 brought him to national prominence. The memo was actually a revised and expanded version of a document written by the Washington lawyer James Rowe; Clifford forwarded his version of the document without reference to Rowe since he was concerned about Rowe's contacts with men the president did not like. In the event, the memo proved to be remarkably prescient, and Clifford was able to reap credit as the "engineer" of Truman's upset victory over Thomas Dewey.

      Clifford remained in the administration for just two more years, but in that time he became known as a golden boy who had helped to shape a number of important domestic and foreign policy initiatives, and had contributed significantly to many of the president's key speeches. When he left the government in late 1949, he had established the contacts and the reputation he would need to begin an unprecedentedly successful law practice in the nation's capital. A diligent student of governmental process, Clifford also had learned how Washington worked--and he used the lessons to his advantage.

      His hard work, savvy, and careful nurturing of his own image quickly brought him important clients such as Howard Hughes and Oklahoma oil baron Senator Robert Kerr. Clifford defended Senator John F. Kennedy against charges that he had not writen his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage. He subsequently became the head of President-elect Kennedy's transition team, and the personal lawyer to the President and Jacqueline Kennedy. A frequent adviser to President Johnson, Clifford was asked at a crucial moment to step in and run the Pentagon after Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided to resign. His close ties to the White House only benefited his law practice, which continued to prosper even as Clifford passed the age when most men had long since retired.

      Aside from praising his role in trying to extract the United States from the war in Vietnam, Frantz and McKean are loath to give Clifford much credit for his career successes. They argue that Clifford, who had been an avid amateur actor, singer, and patron of the arts, was more a man of image than of substance; they argue that by using his good looks, deep voice, commanding presence, and highly-placed contacts, he crafted a persona that sold well in Washington. The bulk of their criticism, however, is directed at what they believe to be his lax standards in separating his private life from his public role. They seek to show that Clifford's influence-wielding put him increasingly in a position in which he could make his own rules, and that it was this process that caused him to see no conflict of interest in serving on the boards of some of his biggest clients, ultimately chairing First American Bankshares (Washington's biggest banking company) while it was a client of his firm.

      In places, the authors' case against Clifford comes across as overdrawn and heavy-handed. Sometimes, their criticism of Clifford's decisions (such as routinely providing personal loans to a Supreme Court justice before whom he was arguing cases) are quite legitimate. At other times, however, they seek to cast doubt upon acts and decisions that, while examples of influence-wielding, posed no real ethical questions. By lumping these together, rather than more carefully delineating them along a spectrum, the authors dilute their own case. Their conclusion that the BCCI scandal was "the final and inevitable act in the drama that Clifford had chosen to live" also seems overly deterministic.

      Whether Clark Clifford ever knew that the Arab shareholders of BCCI were the real owners of First American--the bank that Clifford both chaired and represented legally --is a question that may linger for some time. Both he and his associate Robert Altman were cleared of the charges brought against them on this score (including lying to federal banking regulators and falsifying records), thus vindicating Clifford and officially clearing his name. But the mystery lingers: How could someone as careful and astute as Clifford--Washington's leading lawyer--not have known? Did he not at least have cause to suspect foul play?

      We are all the products of our past experience, and Frantz and McKean are surely right to suggest that Clifford's unbroken string of successes might have lulled him into believing that he could do no wrong. And they may be right to suggest both that his past behavior had made him increasingly willing to live comfortably in an "ethical twilight" and that his Arab colleagues were able to play on the vanity of an older man who was greedy for one last success. But not all readers of this book will walk away convinced by the authors' case that all of Clark Clifford's career had led ineluctably to the trauma that tarnished its end.

--Tami Davis Biddle


Biddle is an assistant professor in the history department at Duke, where she teaches diplomatic and military history.

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