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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2345

Clark Clifford made himself a legend. Coming to Washington at the end of World War II, Clifford became a trusted adviser to a succession of Democratic presidents and built a law firm that prospered on the strength of his influence. Clifford became the consummate Washington insider, the very model of a Beltway sage. Counsel to the President: A Memoir, written with Richard Holbrooke, was apparently intended to formalize Clifford’s conception of himself as a wise statesman. Unfortunately for Clifford, the publication of his autobiography coincided with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) banking scandal and the revelation that he had been a business associate of the errant Arab bankers. Clifford dismisses the scandal in an extended footnote in which he denies any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, Counsel to the Presidentmay end up a monument to an image discredited by history. Whatever the ultimate verdict of time on the character of Clark Clifford, however, he did play an important role in the public life of his day. His memoirs shed much light, both intended and inadvertent, on the history of Cold War America.

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Clark Clifford was born on Christmas Day, 1906, in Fort Scott, Kansas, where his father worked as an auditor for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. After a family move, Clifford grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and for the first half of his life that city was the bound of his ambitions. Clifford enjoyed a happy and secure middle-class childhood. When he came of age, he attended Washington University in St. Louis. There, in what proved to be a fateful decision, Clifford chose to pursue the law as a profession.

In his memoirs, Clifford proudly remarks that, starting in 1928, his legal career spanned more than sixty years. Clifford’s conception of his public service is rooted in his identity as a lawyer. Clifford, in his own eyes, has been from first to last an advocate, fighting for causes in which he believed. From humble beginnings as a trial lawyer, defending with little success down-and-out clients, Clifford gradually built himself a thriving practice. More important, the discipline of mastering the myriad details of court cases developed in Clifford the ability to work logically through complicated issues, while practice in appealing to juries sharpened his skill in the art of persuasion. Though he did not know it at the time, Clifford’s years before the bar in St. Louis had prepared him well for unexpected challenges in the nation’s capitol.

American entry into World War II changed the direction of Clark Clifford’s life. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Clifford joined the Missouri State Guard and served as its judge advocate general. As time passed, Clifford grew restive with this sedentary duty. In the spring of 1944, Clifford obtained a commission as a lieutenant, junior grade in the United States Naval Reserve. His wartime service in the Navy consisted of a number of staff jobs that never took him out of the United States. Clifford was helping assemble supplies for the projected invasion of Japan in June, 1945, when he was contacted by J. K. Vardaman, an old friend from St. Louis who had recently been appointed Naval Aide to President Harry S. Truman. Vardaman wanted an assistant he could trust in the hothouse atmosphere of Washington and offered the job to Clifford. The prospect of working in the White House and witnessing the making of history proved irresistible to Clifford. He accepted the position as Vardaman’s assistant, and in July, 1945, reported for duty.

Soon after Clifford arrived at the White House, the president, with Vardaman, left for the Potsdam Conference. With the president away, Clifford had title to do. The only task he had been assigned was to supervise the redesign of the presidential seal and flag, so he busied himself learning the White House routine and introducing himself to members of President Truman’s staff. Clifford’s most important contact at this time was Judge Samuel I. Rosenman, special counsel to the president, Rosenman was winding up a distinguished career during which he had acted as a close political adviser and speechwriter for Franklin D. Roosevelt and then Truman. Clifford impressed the older man, and as he made himself useful around the White House, he became known as Rosenman’s protégé. Soon Clifford was engaged in a variety of tasks having little to do with naval matters. Under Rosenman’s watchful eye, he began assisting in the drafting of speeches for the president and attending Oval Office discussions of policy. In April, 1946, Clifford succeeded Vardaman as naval aide to the president. Nine weeks later, Harry Truman named him his special counsel.

Clark Clifford rose rapidly to a position of influence in the Truman Administration because of his intelligence, a flair for speechwriting, and almost instinctive political skills. Though he had never before been intimately involved in politics, Clifford quickly became one of Truman’s most trusted and powerful advisers. Clifford consolidated his position by perfecting the attributes of the modern American courtier. From his mentor, Judge Rosenman, Clifford learned that presidential assistants existed only to serve the president. If presidential assistants became controversial or cultivated public personae distinctive from the president, they had outlived their usefulness. Clifford became a master at accomplishing his goals behind the scenes, guiding presidents with confidential memoranda or a few words dropped in a private conversation. Amiability is as important as discretion in a courtier, and Clifford labored diligently to tailor his approach and advice to the man he served. During the Truman Administration, Clifford became the impresario of the president’s famous poker parties, at which the most powerful men in Washington relaxed and talked politics. Clifford, who had never been a card-playing man, took to studying manuals on poker so he could take part in Truman’s games. So devoted was Clifford to his chosen role as adviser to presidents that he became one of the first paladins of what would be called the “imperial presidency.” Throughout his memoir, Clifford repeatedly expresses his reverence for the presidency, while giving little evidence of a similar regard for the other branches of government. As a man who wielded power through his personal relationships with chief executives, Clifford exaggerated the role of the president, forgetting that American governance is driven by more than the will of a man in the White House.

Clark Clifford experienced no ideological difficulties in committing himself to the service of Harry Truman. Clifford was by family tradition a Democrat and by inclination a liberal. Though always a pragmatist with a keen sense of what was politically possible, Clifford consistently advocated the liberal position in internecine battles with conservatives in the Truman Administration. To help advance his ideas, he surreptitiously organized some liberal young officials into a Monday Night Group that met to discuss ideas about governmental initiatives and political strategies. The Monday Night Group helped shape Clifford’s advice to the president on such momentous issues as the desegregation of the armed forces, the special session of Congress in 1948, and the veto of the Taft-Hartley Act. The decisive Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1946 assisted Clifford in his quest for a liberal ascendancy in the administration by convincing Truman that he had to revive the spirit of the New Deal if he was to survive politically.

Clifford also played a part in the development of the great foreign policy initiatives of the Truman Administration. Though he disliked the excesses of the second red scare that erupted during the Truman years, Clifford was nevertheless a dedicated cold warrior who shared the administration’s growing conviction that the United States had to resist Soviet aggression. In 1946, in the wake of George Kennan’s famous Long Telegram, President Truman asked Clifford and his assistant George Elsey to prepare a record of the agreements the Soviet Union had broken. On his own initiative, Clifford had his mandate broadened to canvas the opinions of the government officials most concerned with relations with the Soviet Union. The resultant Clifford-Elsey Report urged the creation of the coherent strategy to restrain the Soviet threat. So vigorous were the report’s recommendations for military and economic aid for nations resisting Soviet encroachment that President Truman, still hoping for better relations with the Soviet Union, had all copies of the report gathered up and removed from circulation. Time and events hardened the president’s attitude toward the Soviets, and Clifford had the satisfaction of supervising the drafting of the speech embodying the Truman Doctrine. Clifford also helped write the National Security Act of 1947, which created both the modern Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Motivated by both idealism and political calculation, Clifford strongly supported Truman’s decision to disregard the advice of the State Department and his military chiefs by recognizing the newborn State of Israel.

Clark Clifford’s most vital contribution to Truman’s presidency came in 1948, when he developed what proved to be a winning strategy for that year’s presidential election. Beset by a resurgent Republican Party and Democratic defections on both the right and left, Truman’s candidacy seemed doomed. Clifford, however, encouraged the president to return resolutely to his liberal roots and remind the people what years of Democratic social policies had done for them, Clifford participated in Truman’s famous whistle-stop campaign across the country, at times even condescending to mix with the crowd and start the applause at crucial moments in the president’s speeches. When Truman won his dramatic electoral victory in November, Clifford wanted to resign as special counsel to pursue his neglected personal affairs. The president persuaded him to stay on for another year. This enabled Clifford to be present at the creation of the Fair Deal and to play a major role in launching Truman’s Point Four program of technical assistance to developing nations.

In 1950, Clifford left the administration and began building his powerful law firm, though he continued to make himself available to President Truman as an adviser. Among the clients Clifford acquired during the 1950’s was Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Clifford acted as Kennedy’s legal troubleshooter, handling a number of delicate tasks for the senator, some of which he still declines to divulge. Clifford’s most spectacular achievement as Kennedy’s lawyer was to browbeat the ABC television network into retracting a report that the senator had not in fact written his prizewinning book Profiles In Courage (1956). When Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Clifford headed his transition team. Though the new president offered Clifford a number of posts in his administration, he refused them all, preferring to continue his unofficial role. Eventually, the only position Clifford accepted from Kennedy was a seat on the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which was organized in the wake of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to advise the president on intelligence matters.

Clifford had known Lyndon Johnson since his days in the Truman Administration, and had a great respect for his political abilities and his ambition to better the condition of the underprivileged in America. When Johnson succeeded Kennedy as president, Clifford easily transferred his loyalties to the new administration and maintained his position as a confidential adviser to the chief executive. As such, Clifford was privy to important policy debates about American involvement in Vietnam. President Johnson had inherited a growing debacle in Southeast Asia and had to decide whether to retrieve the situation by committing American military forces to the war in Vietnam. From the outset, Clifford opposed further American intervention, believing Vietnam to be out of the sphere of the United States’s vital interests. When Johnson sent troops into battle in Vietnam, however, Clifford fell into step behind the president and even argued for more intensive bombing of the enemy, hoping that this might force a resolution to the problem. Vietnam, though, proved a morass for the administration. As the years passed, Clifford grew more convinced that the United States had to leave Vietnam. His opportunity to help speed this withdrawal came in March, 1968, when he accepted an appointment as secretary of defense. President Johnson thought he was placing into office a hawk who would support his policies in Vietnam. In fact, Clifford, appalled by the strength demonstrated by the Communists in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, was determined to negotiate with the enemy and end the war. Utilizing all of his skills as a courtier, Clifford worked assiduously to encourage Johnson to halt the bombing of North Vietnam and open peace talks with the Communist Vietnamese. He deserves much of the credit for Johnson’s diplomatic initiatives in 1968. Yet success in ending the bombing and starting peace talks in Paris gave way to frustration, as one hurdle after another prevented a cessation of hostilities. Clifford watched helplessly as the year became one of successive disasters for the Democrats, culminating in the election of Richard Nixon as president.

A Republican era ensued in the wake of Nixon’s election, leaving Clifford cut off from the center of power. He performed a few diplomatic missions for President Jimmy Carter but never became one of the Georgian’s intimate advisers. During these years, Clifford concentrated on his business affairs, including the ill-fated BCCI venture. Despite his disappointment with the course of politics in recent decades, Clifford ends his book with a hopeful prediction that a new era of liberalism is in the offing. Counsel to the President, for all its understandable partisanship and lacunae, is an engaging and absorbing survey of post-World War II American politics. Clark Clifford may never receive the accolades he desires, but he sat near to power in an important and vibrant period, and his memoirs provide insight into a lost world.

Sources for Further Study


Library Journal
. CXVI, May 15, 1991, p. 88.

The New Republic. CCV, July 8, 1991, p. 32.

Newsweek. CXVII, May 20, 1991, p. 52.

The New York Review of Books. July 18, 1991, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. May 19, 1991, p. 1.

The Progressive. LV, August, 1991, p. 39.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, May 3, 1991, p. 58.

Time. CXXXVII, May 27, 1991, p. 66.

The Washington Monthly. XXIII, June, 1991, p. 48.

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