What's a Wise Man Doing in a Game like This?

April 04, 1991|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — In his forthcoming memoir, ''Counsel to the President,'' Clark Clifford quotes the ''well rehearsed little speech'' he has given to every client since starting his Washington law practice in 1950: ''Before we proceed, there is one point I must make clear. I do not consider that this firm will have any influence of any kind here in Washington . . . ''

Mr. Clifford became, says his publisher, Washington's ''ultimate insider'' and the Democratic Party's ''pre-eminent wise man.'' His memoirs do not include the most famous anecdote, possibly apocryphal, about his law practice:

A client is having trouble with a regulatory agency and asks Mr. Clifford what to do. Mr. Clifford advises, ''Do nothing,'' and sends a bill for $5,000. The client calls back and says, ''At least tell me why I should do nothing.'' Mr. Clifford says, ''Because I said so,'' and sends a bill for $10,000.

At age 84, Clark Clifford is now in trouble over his connection to a crooked foreign bank called BCCI. A group of investors associated with it hired him ten years ago to help them buy a bank in Washington.

Mr. Clifford assured regulators that BCCI would have no connection to this purchase. The sale was approved, he became chairman and his firm made millions in fees. Lo and behold, it turns out that BCCI has been the secret owner all along!

In a footnote to his memoir, Mr. Clifford plays Captain Reynault, straight out of ''Casablanca.'' He is shocked, shocked: ''It was possible that I had been used, I realized with a combination of outrage and deep concern . . .''

How could Clark Clifford's ''smell detectors'' have failed him so late in his career? Easy. BCCI was buying from him what many of his clients have bought over the years: Washington respectability. When you're selling respectability, an oversensitive smell detector is no asset.

Selling respectability is like living off the family silver. You have to dole it out sparingly. But Clark Clifford's timing was perfect. He hoarded most of his respectability until the end, then cashed it in before it was too late.

Influence peddling is rarely as crude as making a phone call (though Mr. Clifford did make that phone call for BCCI, effectively stifling a congressional investigation of drug money laundering by ringing up Sen. Claiborne Pell).

Sometimes it is what lobbyists like to call ''access,'' opening the right door. Sometimes it actually is what Clifford insists in his memoir, merely advice on how best to present your position. Sometimes it is mere propinquity, the right to say, ''Clark Clifford represents me.'' Whatever the specifics, however, clients are paying to tip the balance of democratic government in their favor.

Mr. Clifford's bank has now hired Patton, Boggs & Blow, the law firm of Democratic Party chairman Ron Brown. Mr. Brown and his partners probably spare their clients that sanctimonious little speech. But Mr. Brown's business is essentially the same as Mr. Clifford's.

Mr. Brown has been in the news lately, too. He's a board member and stockholder of a Louisiana company called Chemfix Technologies, which contracts with cities to turn sewage into landfill. Newsday reports that New York awarded Chemfix a $210 million contract about the same time the Democrats chose New York for their next convention.

There is no evidence that Ron Brown ever called up Mayor David Dinkins and said, ''If you want the convention, give me the sludge contract.'' But that's not how it works. There's only one reason a Louisiana sewage company would want a Washington lawyer high in Democratic politics on its board, and it's not because of his knowledge of sewage.

Ron Brown represents several Japanese electronics firms and the imported car dealers lobby. He has worked for the Sultan of Oman. Jack Anderson reported that for most of the 1980s Mr. Brown had a $150,000-a-year contract to represent the Haitian dictatorship of Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier.

In 1986, NBC agreed to sell one of its radio stations to a minority firm. In 1989 it sold Washington station WKYS to a company of which Mr. Brown owns 10 percent. NBC got a special tax break and lent the buyers part of the purchase price. Mr. Brown won't say how much money he had to put up for a share of a broadcast property worth millions.

Ron Brown got this deal because he is black, but not just because he is black. He got it because he is one of Washington's most prominent and politically influential blacks. Having Ron Brown in your minority group when you're trying to obtain a broadcast license is like having Clark Clifford on your team when you're trying to buy a bank.

Some day, Ron Brown may be regarded as the Democratic party's ''pre-eminent wise man.'' Is that progress? Sadly, many of Washington's Democratic greybeards have been men who built fortunes peddling their influence.

Of course, many prominent Republicans have done the same. Republicans pioneered the grossest excesses of influence peddling in the 1980s, stripping away the veneers painstakingly maintained by the Clark Cliffords. But you expect this of Republicans.

For the Republicans now -- as for the Democrats during Clark Clifford's prime -- it doesn't matter so much. But it's different if you're a party in desperate need of redefining yourself. In that situation, it's a substantial disadvantage when your so-called leaders and wise men can be bought by anyone who walks in the door with enough money.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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