Commentary Magazine

Counsel to the President, by Clark Clifford

Power Broker

Counsel to the President: A Memoir.
by Clark Clifford with Richard Holbrooke.
Random House. 709 pp. $25.00.

The cover of this handsome volume is graced by a somewhat flattering oil painting of the author, and the title is highlighted by a row of five-pointed stars apparently purloined from the Presidential Seal. The message is clear: this is a valediction, intended to climax and celebrate fifty years in the epicenter of power and policy. Yet such are the anomalies of fate (and of publishing) that by the time Counsel to the President appeared in the stores, Clark Clifford, now 84, found himself facing possible indictment for his alleged role in the largest banking scandal in history. Newsweek‘s often vicious “Conventional Wisdom Watch” (August 6) put it this way: “Old CW: Eminent statesman. New CW: Craven influence peddler.”

It is regrettable that Clifford’s problems (the political equivalent of a multiple-vehicle accident) came to light at the same time as his book, because many potential readers may be thus inclined to pass it by, when in fact it is one of the more interesting memoirs to emerge from Washington in some time. This is mostly due to the fact that its author, after all, is not precisely a nobody. He has been a key figure since the end of World. War II; he was present at dozens of major historic events—from Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 to the reversal of U.S. policy in Vietnam in 1968; and at times he played a crucial role in shaping the outcomes of those events. And the book is of considerable interest in yet another way: the pages are crowded with original material (notes, quotations from cabinet meetings, and so forth) which afford a fascinating sense of texture and much new insight. Most of the time, too, it is a downright good read—a credit to the literary skills of Clifford, or his co-author Richard Holbrooke, or some talented ghost-writer, or possibly all three.

Inevitably, this is also a partisan book—fiercely so, in fact. Democrats are responsible for all the good things that have happened in this country over the past fifty years, Republicans for most or all of our misfortunes, past and present. (Some of Clifford’s considerable argumentative skills as a lawyer are revealed in the chapter where he manages to transfer a good part of the blame for the Vietnam war onto President Eisenhower.) Quite often Clifford’s version of the past reminds me of the portraits painted by a certain Argentine society artist of the 1920’s. As a nephew explained it to me some decades later, the artist had been trained in Germany to get the eyes just right. “The rest of the face—well, that,” the nephew added, “they taught him to arrange.” Much the same seems to be the case here: there is a crucial kernel of truth, but how much the rest of it is to be believed varies with one’s own direct knowledge of the subjects treated.

There is also a slight but irritating “presentism” which periodically shapes (or rather, misshapes) the narrative, so that values current in Democratic circles today are read back into the past to give the protagonist a more “progressive” image in retrospect. Interestingly, however, Clifford is not a bit convincing in this guise: he still reveals himself to be the archetypal representative of “the old politics” of the pre-1968 Democratic party. This book, indeed, reminds us what a fine thing that was.



Clark Clifford was born in St. Louis shortly after the turn of the century into a reasonably cultured middle-class family which seems to have experienced downward mobility. He was a talented provincial; after passing through local schools, he was admitted to the bar and married a hometown girl. Entering the practice of law in the late 20’s, he managed to prosper even during the Depression. He says now that he never expected to leave St. Louis or the life he led there; but then the war came. Clifford entered the Navy as a commissioned officer, and thanks to some Missouri connections, found himself stationed in Washington. In 1945 his fellow Missourian, Harry Truman, quite unexpectedly succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Clifford, who had barely been to sea, was suddenly appointed one of the new President’s naval aides. Leaving the service after the war, he stayed on at the White House as a speechwriter and staffer.

During the Truman administration Clifford seems to have been everywhere: involved in labor showdowns with John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, and in political confrontations with Vice-President Henry Wallace (who resigned to challenge Truman from the Left in the 1948 elections). He played a key role in the reorganization of the military services and what became the Defense Department after the war. He was actively involved in the formulation of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, and in the creation of the CIA, the National Security Council, and the FBI’s loyalty program. He was hip-deep in the drafting of Truman’s Fair Deal; Point Four; racial desegregation of the armed forces; and the 1948 presidential campaign.

After Truman’s reelection, Clifford remained on the White House staff for only one more year, resigning to go into private practice. Today, when government officials seem to pass through the revolving door with no more than decent speed, this hardly seems odd. But it was audacious at the time. Clifford was no less ambitious than those of his colleagues who chose to remain on the “inside,” but his was a more dispassionate form of ambition—colder, more calculating, more intelligent. He grasped that you could actually count for more on the outside, as long as you could get your telephone calls returned. He became the first of the great modern Washington power brokers.

This meant he was often called in to put out fires, or to smooth out differences between vain and petulant rivals within the same party, or even (in one hilarious anecdote) to attract guests to a “cocktail” party hosted by a tee-totaling Senator. He flourished even in the 1952-1960 period of Republican ascendancy. But he really came into his own during the Kennedy administration, which he helped to assemble. To the Kennedy family in particular he was an indispensable retainer, helping to produce a plausible denial to the persistent rumor that John F. Kennedy had not actually written his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, or to smooth over the revelation that Teddy had been expelled from Harvard for hiring someone else to take his Spanish exam.

Inevitably, Vietnam occupies a very large space in this book—in fact, about a third of the total—in a richly filigreed account to which it is difficult to do justice in a review. Here Holbrooke, who played a large role in Southeast Asian policy in both the Johnson and Carter administrations, seems to have gotten deeply involved in the writing, largely to settle scores with his many enemies and critics. Broadly speaking, we have here the story of how Clifford moved away from his own “hawkish” position to a point where, as Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, he succeeded in convincing the President that there was no point in continuing to wage the war on the terms which he, Johnson, had chosen, but rather that we should seek a negotiated solution.

The particular crunch-point was the Tet offensive, which, though commonly conceded today to have been a military victory for the U.S., turned into a political disaster at home—and not only because the story was misreported by the American media (although it was). Rather, the top brass of the Army itself altered Clifford’s perception of the battlefield situation by almost immediately demanding an additional 205,000 American soldiers. When Clifford asked for assurances that this would be the last installment, General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could offer none, nor—apparently—provide even an estimate of just how many more he might subsequently need. The last straw was Wheeler’s assuring a group of senior presidential advisers that the purpose of the American forces in Vietnam was not to defeat the enemy but merely to prevent a Communist victory. “Then what in the name of God are five hundred thousand men out there doing—chasing girls?,” Dean Acheson roared back.



There is much human drama in these pages, particularly in connection with Lyndon Johnson himself, who was skillfully maneuvered by Clifford, Acheson, Paul Warnke, and other trusted advisers into a position which ran against his deepest convictions, his pride, and his concern for his place in history. Though Johnson announced his intention not to seek reelection in a televised address on March 30, 1968, he periodically contemplated reversing himself once again. When Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, almost pathologically needful of the presidency but equally terrified of his boss, finally broke with Johnson by promising to halt the bombing as an “acceptable risk for peace,” he drove the President to near-distraction. (If Clifford is right, on alternate days Johnson’s preferred candidate in 1968 was Richard Nixon and not his own Vice President.)

Meanwhile, Clifford tells us, Nixon was covertly assuring the South Vietnamese government that they need not be particularly pliable or cooperative with the Johnson administration since they would get a better deal from its Republican successor. This made organizing the first Paris peace talks an excruciatingly difficult task, and bequeathed to the Nixon administration a dilemma largely of its own making. For—Clifford holds—instead of grasping the vast political space carved out for him, Nixon chose to resume the fruitless quest for a military victory until, some 30,000 more dead American servicemen later, he finally realized there was no choice but to return to where things stood on his Inauguration Day—that is, to cut a deal with Hanoi.

Some of this information has long been in the public domain, but at times Clifford’s account, far from adding to our knowledge, almost deliberately puts it out of focus. Specifically, he makes it sound as if the choices before the United States in 1968 were simple ones—continue fighting the war by giving General Wheeler unlimited men and material, or go to Paris to work out an acceptable solution with the enemy. He is right to claim that he brought Johnson to the point of refusing the first option (though he was helped in this by Richard Russell, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who told the White House that another 205,000 troops could not be “sold” to the Congress). But Clifford fails to appreciate why Johnson was so reluctant to embrace the second.

The harsh fact is that in 1968 the only thing to negotiate in Paris was an American abandonment of the Republic of Vietnam. Johnson instinctively understood this, which is why he kept trying to backpedal even after his March 30 speech. But the temporary compromise—stop the bombing, go to Paris, but keep up the American military presence in Vietnam—could not be sustained indefinitely. Some tough decisions had to be made. Johnson and Humphrey were lucky enough to leave office in January 1969, so that Nixon could be subsequently blamed for his failure to defy the law of gravity. Of course, to say this is in no way to excuse Nixon for his own maladroit management of the problem—including his failure to level with the American public, or even to force the Congress to share some of the responsibility for policy. Nor does it do justice to the problem which faced Johnson, Nixon, and surely would have faced Humphrey as well: how to disengage while maintaining a modicum of American credibility in the world.

Clifford says that Humphrey, if elected, had every intention of naming him Secretary of State. Instead, a new eight-year period of Republican ascendancy returned him to private life. Although briefly pressed back into government service as a presidential adviser and special envoy during the Carter administration, he was forced by deteriorating health to restrict and eventually curtail such activities. His comments on the Carter administration are not, in the event, very informative, not so much because his own role was limited as because of his inability to appreciate why the administration was such a failure. More seriously still, this book reflects not a particle of awareness of the drastic changes which have occurred in American political culture or within the Democratic party since 1968.

Clifford has no use for Ronald Reagan or his administration, to which he ascribes all of our current ills, real and imagined. But—very much to his credit—he deeply regrets the wide currency given to the term “amiable dunce,” which he himself used to describe the President on what he had been assured was a completely off-the-record occasion. To the final page he remains blind to the fact that much of what happened in the Reagan administration, particularly the end of the cold war, represents the final success of policies in whose early design he played a vital role.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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