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.
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...
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