Prosecutors go after mighty target Clifford personifies Washington power

July 30, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Federal prosecutors going after Clark M. Clifford on criminal charges is, in power-town Washington, roughly the equivalent of the House of Representatives impeaching the president of the United States.

Yesterday's indictment of Mr. Clifford on conspiracy and other charges represents a potentially reputation-destroying assault on one of the capital city's most visible authority figures.

Among this city's "superlawyers," Mr. Clifford is thought of as the Washington Monument, possessing for years as much power to make things happen in government as anyone except perhaps presidents themselves.

Because law is the drive wheel of so much of government policy-making or program direction, lawyers have a way of dominating Washington as investment bankers do Wall Street, studio moguls do Hollywood, beer barons do Milwaukee, oil sheiks do the Persian Gulf.

But, in each generation in Washington, only a handful of the big-name lawyers reach "superlawyer" rank.

Mr. Clifford is the reigning example, and just possibly could be again, if his name, his power, his influence -- even his license to be a lawyer -- are not lost in a guilty verdict on some or all of the new criminal charges leveled against him yesterday in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal.

For what may be the first time in his life, the 85-year-old "superlawyer" finds his destiny entirely in others' control -- something he long ago vowed never to let happen. This one-time St. Louis lawyer, who as a young Navy officer seized a chance job at the White House and personally turned it into a swift, direct entree to the pinnacle of Washington power, is now very much at the mercy of federal and state prosecutors, and very much dependent on the talents of other lawyers, who will defend him.

He is, in short, seriously at risk of being branded a criminal at the end of a thoroughly illustrious career.

Mr. Clifford himself may have anticipated the irony of that, when he wrote more than a year ago in an introduction to his memoirs, hTC "Counsel to the President," this somewhat rueful remark: "At the savage intersection of policy, ambition, and history, it is impossible to be right all the time."

Over the many weeks that the BCCI scandal has unfolded, his rank and reputation here have fueled a stubborn and seemingly pervasive disbelief that he could really be involved in anything criminal -- at least intentionally. The benefit of the doubt has been given to him routinely, and in no small part because of his "superlawyer" stature.

Washington tends to adore those who know well how to work the levers of power, and it tends actually to worship the "superlawyers" who show that they know best how to do that.

Mr. Clifford is remembered -- accurately -- as an adviser to presidents, someone who was only a White House telephone call away from crisis-management service directly to the Oval Office. Democratic presidents may have summoned him more often, for a wider variety of help, than even those legends among Democratic "wise men" -- the late W. Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson.

Mr. Clifford worked in the government, as Harry S. Truman's White House lawyer and Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam war defense secretary, but he turned down far more official posts than he ever held. He has been more diligently used -- and apparently more effectively -- as an insider's outsider.

Among Washington insiders, service to a president by a "superlawyer" is but a natural extension of what those attorneys do every day: They make the machinery of government work for their clients, in the most unobtrusive way possible. A showy or boastful public display of power or of influence is but a prelude to the loss of both, for a "superlawyer".

Clark Clifford's name is on no piece of federal legislation, no administrative regulation, no program, and no policy initiative. But his imprint is everywhere in Washington, and it has been for nearly a half-century.

He has brokered everything from tax breaks for the DuPont family, to the political career of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and his service to blue-chip industry -- leading it through the regulatory labyrinth of Washington -- is legendary. Making money in corporate America often depends upon getting official restraints relaxed, and Mr. Clifford is said to be a master at that.

By being known widely as a White House confidant, as well as knowing intimately how Washington functions, this "superlawyer" has been able to get his clients through open doors, help them get official initiatives started or stopped, and stave off public embarrassment for them.

When Mr. Clifford is on the line calling someone -- anyone -- in a position to get official results, the authority of the "superlawyer" with a likely friend in or near the White House can be as eloquent a message as Mr. Clifford's own words.

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