WASHINGTON — Washington-- With a few Republican exceptions, House Banking Committee members about to question Clark Clifford had opened their remarks with a deep bow to the elder statesman and his near half-century of public service. Most of those who expressed doubts about his banking affairs half-apologized for their skepticism.
Then it was Maxine Waters' turn.
Like Mr. Clifford and his partner Robert Altman, Mrs. Waters is a liberal Democrat. She is a freshman from California, representing Watts, Downey and south-central Los Angeles. I doubt that many of her constituents were watching the committee hearing on the links between the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International and First American Bank, of which Mr. Clifford was chairman and Mr. Altman president.
Those Californians live a world apart from Washington lawyers and bankers who talk of personal loans in the millions, of jetting back and forth to London and Abu Dhabi. More than 80 percent of the district is black or Hispanic. Sixty percent of its housing is rented -- at a median of $161 a month, in one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation.
Mrs. Waters did not need to use the hearing as a grandstand to impress any 29th District voters who might have tuned in. Before coming to Congress, she served 14 years in the California Assembly, where she was no shrinking violet. She won her primary last year with 88 percent of the vote, and the general election with 79 percent.
What she said when her turn came was just what those who know her would expect. She did not bow.
''I am thoroughly disgusted with the high and mighty, with the privileged,'' she declared. ''I come from a district where people are poor, where people are struggling, where people go to jail when they steal a loaf of bread. They are shot by cops if they make a wrong move.''
Ears perked up in the hearing room. Mr. Clifford cleared his throat. Mrs. Waters went on:
''The high and the mighty and the rich are getting away with unusual criminal activity. I don't hold anybody in such high regard . . . that I'm unwilling to send them to jail. I'm anxious to be involved in these hearings. I do not intend to be nice to anybody.''
Well, Messrs. Clifford and Altman have testified before two grand juries, and neither has charged them with criminal activity. And as a member of Congress, Mrs. Waters is not in a position to send anybody to jail. She was wrong to imply that the witnesses before her committee were guilty of breaking the law.
But she was on target in expressing the frustration of people like those in Watts, whose downtown was burned out in one of the first urban uprisings of the angry Sixties, and whose plight has not improved much since. The rage of the hopeless poor at what they see of the faraway rich is understandable, and fuels the crime among them.
Mrs. Waters' constituents may never have heard of Mr. Clifford, but he has always been on their side. When he was counsel to Harry Truman, he urged the president to follow the liberal domestic policies of Franklin Roosevelt. For decades, he has been a friend of the downtrodden, a dedicated supporter of civil rights. Along the way, he also has prospered as one of Washington's most successful lawyers.
Even the most partisan Republicans have not accused him of ripping off the taxpayer, of feeding at the public trough. The personal loans and stock transactions freely acknowledged by Mr. Clifford and Mr. Altman are unimaginably grand to the residents of Watts, but they are mere taxi tips beside the sums involved in the barely remembered HUD scandal of the Reagan administration.
Rep. Bernie Sanders, the only Socialist congressman, asked what his Vermont voters making $8 or $10 an hour, whose standard of living is slipping, should think of a system where prominent Americans make millions working for ''Middle Eastern billionaire dictators.'' Patiently, Mr. Clifford said there was nothing illegal about it, that it ''may be difficult for citizens in
Vermont who make $8, $10 an hour to understand, but it happens all the time.''
Exactly. Ronald Reagan makes $2 million for a weekend in Japan, George Bush plays aerobic golf chanting ''no new taxes,'' lobbyists and Wall Street sleight-of-hand artists get richer by the minute. Meanwhile we build more jails for the urban poor who make the mistake of reaching for a quick fix or a quick buck, and sociologists try to figure out why so many Americans don't bother to vote.