In his A Second Look series, Bill Moyers speaks with Clark Clifford about his decades as a trusted adviser to the most powerful leaders in Washington, including President Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Carter.
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. When this conversation first aired in 1981, Ronald Reagan’s administration was only a month old. But the man you’re about the meet was no greenhorn when it came to watching presidents. He’d already been in Washington long enough to meet seven of them, and advise most of them. Join me for a Second Look with Clark Clifford.
[voice-over] Few men in Washington have exercised power for as long or in as many ways as Clark McAdams Clifford. He came from Missouri to Washington in 1945 as a young naval aide to Harry Truman, who soon made him special counsel to the President, a job that placed Clifford right at the center of the most critical decisions of those crucial years. He was a principal agent in shaping American foreign policy from within the White House, and in unifying the Armed Forces under a single Department of Defense.
During the Eisenhower years he became one of Washington’s most successful lawyers. Super-Clark they called him — the most powerful private citizen since Bernard Baruch. While advising many of the nation’s mightiest corporations, he also became an adviser to presidents. He planned John Kennedy’s transition to the White House, and while still a private citizen became Kennedy’s chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was an intimate behind-the-scenes adviser to Lyndon Johnson until in 1968, Johnson named him Secretary of Defense. A hawk until he arrived in the Pentagon, Clifford decided the war in Vietnam couldn’t be won. According to most participants, he played the key role within government in persuading LBJ to reverse his policies.
He returned to private practice in 1969 until President Carter sent him on special assignment to Greece, Turkey, Cypress and India. Now, at the age of 75 still putting in a full day at his office, he looks out across Lafayette Square at the White House and reminisces about presidents and power.
[on camera] You’ve been advising presidents and observing presidents through that window for almost 25 years now. Is it, from your perspective, an impossible job?
CLARK CLIFFORD: No, it isn’t at all. I have the deepest reverence for the institution of the Presidency, and have made a good deal of a study of it, and I find that it has become more complicated but the right man at the right time can still make a signal — success of the Presidency.
MOYERS: Let’s take the presidents you have known personally and observed from here for the last 25 years, and you give me a thumbnail sketch on how you felt the personality of each affected the office. And start with your old mentor, Harry Truman.
CLIFFORD: Well, that’s quite an assignment. There is probably a way that in a word or two you can describe each one of our presidents. President Truman — you would use the words “decisive” and “courageous” and “modest.” And those qualities together made him one of our more unusual presidents. Then you come to President Eisenhower. The primary factor in the Eisenhower Administration was he was elected at exactly the right time that the country needed him.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
CLIFFORD: Well, we’d had 20 years of Franklin Roosevelt with the constant pressure for social progress, carried on to a great extent by President Truman. I had the feeling at some times that we were like a military commander who had outdistanced his supply train. What we needed in the eight years of Eisenhower was to stop, look, and study, bring up our secondary troops, see where we were. And because he was a national hero, and he was so greatly beloved, he served that purpose with almost divine guidance, it seemed to me, as far as our country was concerned. Then, after him came President Kennedy. And there’s one word that describes him more accurately than any other and that is “grace.” He had, born within him, the greatest sense of grace and consideration for others as any man I have ever seen. After President Kennedy came President Johnson. There is one of our most interesting presidents. Raw power. You sensed it. And I’m sure that from the first time he ever heard the word politics used, he had as his ultimate ambition to be President of the United States. He loved every minute of it, whether things were going well or going badly. You just had the feeling he reveled in the job. A very powerful, meaningful president, and — I think, because of what I considered to be the dramatic success of his domestic policy — he would be certainly outstanding, maybe ranking up with our greatest had it not been for the tragedy of Vietnam in which he got caught. After President Johnson came President Nixon. He has some very real accomplishments to his credit. The accomplishment of opening the doors between the United States and China has been and will prove to be a preeminently successful move on his part. Also, I pay great homage to him for the success of Salt I — a fine move and it started a relationship with the Soviet Union, which if we can get back on the track will be very important. That again could have been a very successful presidency had President Nixon really believed in our system. And I concluded after a while that he did not do so. He didn’t believe in the First Amendment, and he didn’t believe in the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression. He just did not believe in them. He didn’t believe in the Fourth Amendment that protects a man’s home and office against depredations of one who would wish to enter them against the owner’s will. He didn’t believe in that. I doubt that he believed in the Tenth Amendment, which places the control of the government in the hands of the people, except for those rights that they give to the Federal Government. He extended, though, I think, the doctrine of Executive Privilege, he tried to extend that way beyond what our forefathers though. And I think, that’s where, unfortunately, the difficulty began.
CLIFFORD: President Ford, I think, would come under the heading of “the great healer.” At a time when our country went astray, our people were discouraged, we’d been through Watergate, we’d been through the trauma of Vietnam — President Ford came. Easygoing, understanding, a very decent man — and he was exactly what the country needed at that particular time. And so, the troubles began to subside and the fact that this man presided at the time lent confidence to the people where they otherwise might not have had it. And he came very close, of course, to being reelected for a term in his own right. Then we come to the last in our recounting, to President Carter. The one word that I would use to describe that more than any other is “an enigma.” I watched it day by day. Every day I was fascinated with that presidency, as I have been with all of them because I’ve been privileged to serve some presidents. A man who is honest, able, intelligent, industrious, wanted very much to succeed, and yet the existence of blocks that, after a while, I was able, I believe, to analyze kept it from being a successful presidency.
MOYERS: Well now, explain that. What happened to Jimmy Carter? What do you mean by “blocks?”
CLIFFORD: Well, he had so much going for him. In the first place he was elected without any real commitments. He had come from nowhere. And, as a result, to come in with no commitments gives a president a marvelous, broad, flexible horizon of operation. And I got to know him. I liked him. I thought it was going to be a great success and then I found that problems kept coming up into the matter. Now one of them was he attempted to operate the government without calling upon the expertise that the country could furnish him. You cannot bring inexperienced men who had never been in the White House before he was elected in to the government and expect the government to run well. You’ve got to have people of experience and ability who have been through it all before.
MOYERS: And yet Carter could not allow into his intimate circle people he had not known before.
CLIFFORD: That’s right. The basic answer to your question is, he had a preconceived concept of the presidency that he and the tightly knit group around him had. It proved not to be an accurate concept of the presidency, but he adhered to that original concept, stayed with it for four years. You say, “What could he have done!” He could have opened that up at the very beginning, and he could have found any number of persons anxious to come in and serve him. It would have prevented many of those egregious mistakes that were made, that the people just sort of never recovered from.
MOYERS: Did you ever have the feeling that, like an engineer, he preferred to be down tinkering with the machinery instead of being on the deck of a ship charting the course.
CLIFFORD: To a certain extent, you would have difficulty faulting him for that. If it is his nature to want to get down in the details, then, certainly, I would commend him for it because we’ve had a good many presidents who did not choose to get down into the details. You know, we’ve had some presidents who were pretty lazy sometimes. And that certainly cannot be said about President Carter. But there is another facet present in being an engineer that saw, and it also, unfortunately, was a handicap. He prided himself on being an engineer and a scientist. Every now and then he would say, “Now, as a scientist, I would…” do this, and “as a scientist, I would…” do that, and he had good scientific training. What scientists do is they stand at “A” and they go from “A” to “B” and “B” to “C” and “C” to “D” and “D” is their goal. And they know that if they just stay on the line, unquestionably they will reach “D.” I saw that in the President from time to time. That he had sufficient knowledge and experience to know that if he proceeded along a certain line, the result would be there. The trouble with it — it doesn’t work in the White House, because it doesn’t take into consideration the House of Representatives or the Senate of the United States or the media or the American people or —
MOYERS: Or the permanent bureaucracy — the lawyers, the lobbyists.
CLIFFORD: That’s right. All these other factors that come in. The problems of the President of the United States are not susceptible to scientific treatment. There’s a lot more that goes into it. The fact is you almost have to disregard it. May I give you an illustration? He came into the White House —
CLIFFORD: President Carter came into the White House, and after a while he got settled and began to feel more comfortable, began to look around for problems to solve. Well, one of them was the Panama Canal. Now, I never had a shot at that, because you cannot go to a president and say, “Mr. President, you’ve not asked for my opinion, but I’m going to volunteer you.” You’d probably only do that once and then you’d never see him again, do you see? But I know that issue. It came up in the Johnson Administration. It was all talked out. I sat in on some meetings, and that is a perfect issue for a president to bring up in the third year of his second term, when he can be a statesman, and he can say, “This is right.” And then he doesn’t have to worry about commitments that he’s made. He doesn’t have to worry about enemies that he has made. But he picked this one out. Now, interestingly enough, he was right.
MOYERS: And courageous.
CLIFFORD: And courageous. Absolutely wrong to bring up at the time. Because he absolutely froze a very substantial part of the populace in this country into a position of eternal and permanent enmity as far as he was concerned. Also, there were a number of members of the Senate, do you see, who just would not forgive him because he forced them into a position that made them very unpopular at home, and they felt they had to go along. There again, the right thing to do, the timing was wrong. A broader concept on his part of the Presidency would have greatly facilitated that decision-making process. Another — 22 water projects out in the West, do you remember that one? He took a look at that and my recollection is, he said, “About 14 of these, I think, have no merit and may be seven or eight have.” Well, right about that time out went California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado.
MOYERS: And he never recovered —
CLIFFORD: Never recovered.
MOYERS: Out in the West.
CLIFFORD: Now, later he had to back up, do you see, you know, but there again the fact is politics is a very important part of our government. It must not be denigrated. It’s the way our country runs. It’s the lubricant that keeps the wheels going smoothly.
MOYERS: Well, define it. What do you mean “politics?”
CLIFFORD: Oh, this is it. I mean that if a president fulfills his obligation, then he must have a program. And if he has a program, then he must try to get the Congress to pass the program. And in doing that there occurs one of the most skillful areas. Our most skillful, our most illustrious presidents have been good politicians. Abraham Lincoln was, do you see? Teddy Roosevelt was; Franklin Roosevelt was. And Lyndon Johnson was.
MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson in the beginning.
CLIFFORD: Oh, excellent in the beginning. So, you’ve got a program; you want to get it through. You have an energy program. You have civil rights programs. You have human rights programs. A president has to have a program. He absolutely flounders if he doesn’t know politics.
MOYERS: Which is trading. Which is compromise. Which is persuading.
CLIFFORD: Sure, sure. Which is saying, “I have certain things that you want, but you have certain things that I want, and I will work out arrangements with you in which you will get some of what you want if you’ll give me some of what I want.” And it goes very nicely. And what you do, too, is you invite congressmen to the White House for dinner. And you know what it does? It puts them in great with their wives, because the wives love to be invited to the White House, do you see? And they love to talk about it to their friends, “Well, I went to the White House last night, the President said this, the President said that.” You make a friend of that congressman, you make a friend of that senator. Then after a while you can call him in. And President Johnson calls in a senator and he says, “Joe.” Joe says, “Yes, Mr. President. “He says, “Docs that law partner of yours still want to be a federal judge?” “Oh,” he says, “he certainly does.” “Well,” he says, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that lately, and we’re going to want to talk about that. But in the process of talking about that I want to talk with you about the fact that I think we’ve got to increase our social security program.” “Well, Mr. President, I’ve spoken against that.” “Well, I know, Joe, but times have changed and you think about it a while.” Do you see? “In a week gone by, you call me.” Joe calls him in a week and says, “Mr. President, I’ve been thinking about that and I think there’s a lot of merit to your position. And I believe I can change on that Social Security. I want to come over and talk to you, and incidentally, I talked to Joe, my partner, and he is just tickled to death.” Now, people say, “Well, that’s politics.” That’s the way the country runs. That’s the way business runs. That’s the way commerce runs. That’s the way our government runs — is that you’re constantly trading assets back and forth to get your programs.
MOVERS: But Jimmy Carter said, “I’m going to come to Washington and stop that Washington game, because it’s so expensive. It’s the reason,” said Carter in the campaign, “that we are in trouble, and I’m going to stop the Washington game.”
CLIFFORD: Life doesn’t work that way. It sure doesn’t work that way in Washington, and it doesn’t work that way in government. If you feel you’re right, then you do everything in your power, within proper ethical consideration, to get support for what you believe and that leads to success. And if you don’t use all those other factors, then you get an unfortunate result.
MOYERS: I thought of that very famous memorandum you wrote in 1948 outlining the strategy for the election which no one, except you and a few others, thought Harry Truman could win. Did he think he would lose, or was he always optimistic?
CLIFFORD: No one will ever be able to answer that question. I know only that I never heard a word come from him that indicated that he thought he was going to lose. But it was almost impossible to find anybody close who thought he was going to win. Everything was against him. In the summer before the election, we had two polling companies at that time. One was Gallup and one poll, and Dewey was so far ahead that they said they weren’t going to conduct any more polls because there was no way in which Truman could possibly catch up to Dewey, and that’s the way it continued on. Everybody accepted that. Oh — an incident six weeks before the election in 1948, Newsweek came out with a story saying that they had picked the top 50 experts in the country in politics and political science and sent them a ballot which merely read, “In your opinion, which man will win on November 6, Dewey or Truman.” And the 50 were Walter Lippman and Scotty Reston and Roscoe Drummond and Joe Alsop and all — you name them — the top big figures of that period. All 50 responded, one of the most unusual polls that was ever taken. And they announced that 10 days before the election they would publish the result of this poll. We on the train — we spent three or four months on this train — we knew it was going to be important, and we were out in Iowa. We came up to a small town — Chicken Bristle, Iowa, I think — and I remember slipping off the train and going in to see if they had a newsstand, and they did, and I got a copy of Newsweek, and on the outside it said, “Truman” and it gave the number of votes that he had, and ”Dewey” and the number of votes that he had. You know what it was? ”Truman-0; Dewey-50.” All 50 of these experts said that Dewey was going to be elected. And when I got back on the train, I put this under my coat and I had to walk through. The President was sitting there and he said to me, “What does it say?” And I thought I might get by and I said, ”What docs what say?” He said, “Come on back.” And I said, “What does what — ?” He said, “What have you got under your coat?” I said, “I haven’t got anything.” He said, “I saw you go in the newsstand, now let me see it.” And I had to hand this magazine to him that said, “Truman — 0; Dewey — 50.” And his attitude was, ”They just get more wrong all the time.”
MOYERS: Is it true that, while you were on that famous train that he took across the country, you would help write the speech, and then you and your colleagues would slip off the train and go out into the crowd and applaud while the President was speaking, applaud your own lines?
CLIFFORD: It may have happened once or twice when we didn’t expect a very big crowd, but it wasn’t a regular event. I don’t want you to think that we were just a clack on the train. But sometimes he had been very critical of Republicans. In his Dexter speech, for instance, he had said that GOP stood for “gluttons of privilege,” and I think if we had it to do again we might have written a little differently. And he said that the Republicans had plunged a pitchfork into the farmers back. The rhetoric was getting a little stronger all the time, so they started, the crowd started the cry when he’d come out on the back and say, “Hello, I’m glad to be in your town” and one thing and another… Somebody out in the crowd would yell, “Give ’em hell, Harry!” And then that would whip up the crowd. So; occasionally if that hadn’t happened early enough in the speech, I think I have seen some of our fellows slip off the train in the back of the crowd and yell, ”Give ’em hell, Harry!” And that had a tendency to revitalize the audience.
MOYERS: Do you think we’ve lost something from politics in the time since then when television has taken the place of that kind of personal experience on the road, that kind of direct confrontation between a candidate and the voters.
CLIFFORD: I think not. The fact is that, very likely, it has greatly increased the personal contact between the voter and the candidate. Because I remember one time, the President went out and made a speech in Chicago and we commented coming back on the train how marvelous it was — there were 100,000 people in that great stadium. And just think, you see, “That one speech,” we said, “reached 100,000 people.” Do you know what I read in the paper some time ago? There’s some soap opera about Texas or something, I don’t know quite what it is.
CLIFFORD: “Dallas.” And they put on some installment of that and then they took the test and 100 million people saw that installment of that particular opera. But suppose you get a campaign that has vital issues in it, and both candidates arc arguing them well, why a candidate can go before the American people and maybe tell 50 or 60 million people. It is a simply marvelous medium for that kind — they’re not going to go down to the railroad station and hear him. We went to almost every state in the union — and maybe five percent of the American people saw him.
MOYERS: When you were in the White House, there were only six senior assistants to the President, and you met every morning at 8:30 and that’s when you got a lot of business done. But you were the one of the six who discovered the importance of staying late in the afternoon, and of discovering that the roots of power in the White House are often bourbon and branchwater taken alone with the President at the end of the day. Right?
CLIFFORD: Well, in the White House there is always struggle and contention. If you’re going to be worth your salt, you have to take part in the policy decisions. There’s where the excitement, there’s where the provocation, there’s where the challenge is. And so, I did that. And I had a definite position on the different issues. I learned after a while that at the end of a day, when the President was relaxed a little, if I would drop in and talk with him it gave me an excellent opportunity to present my view. We could work it in unostentatiously, almost with considerable naturalness. And, as a result, it established something of a precedent, and so I would always manage to drop in at the end of the day. And then he would have things to discuss about the next day. And after a little while, I decided I wouldn’t trade that half hour with anybody else in the government, if they could see the President every week for an hour or two hours or something, just that time at the end of the day, every day, gave me a great advantage.
MOYERS: When Harry Truman left office, he wasn’t very popular. He’d been ridiculed. His policies were controversial. There was a general disapproval of him. What do you think his lasting legacy is today?
CLIFFORD: Harry Truman saved the free world. That’s his great monument. As time goes on it becomes more apparent all the time. Here’s what happened. After the Second World War, Europe was prostrate. Look at England. Look at France. Look at Italy. Look at Belgium. Look at Germany. Do you see? And the great aim and the great ambition that Harry Truman had was to find a way to work together with the Soviet Union and develop a permanent concord in the world. It was not to be. The Soviets didn’t want it that way. They started in, as soon as the Second World War was over, to do everything they could to further their own future. You remember they started in and took all of the nations on their western periphery: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, later Hungary. They just took them all. They wanted to have a bridge against the Soviet Union and the West. After doing that, then they set up the Comintern, which was the Communist cell in every important country in the world. And at that particular time it was nip and tuck as to whether you were going to save the countries of Western Europe and keep them from going Communist: Harry Truman came along first with the “Truman Doctrine,” March 1947, in which he said to the whole world, “It should be the policy of the United States to prevent the Communism by force of these countries that they now have put pressure upon.” That saved Greece and Turkey. Greece and Turkey were going down the drain just as sure. And they were the southern anchor of the line in the Mediterranean. Then the net could squeeze us and the Allies out of Germany. They didn’t squeeze Harry Truman out of there. He started, and he supported Berlin, with these air flights. And they got more and more and more efficient all the time, and it showed the Soviets and the world that he could not be pushed around. Then came one of the greatest of all — NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. We signed that treaty with the main nations of Western Europe and it said to the Soviets, “If you attack any one of those nations, you are attacking the United States of America. And you know what NATO has done is kept the peace for 31 years since it was passed, because the Soviets had a very clear signal — you attack any one of those nations, you are at war with the United States. That’s kept the peace.
MOYERS: You wrote the famous memorandum in 1946 that helped shape those decisions. It pushed the Truman Administration toward many of those decisions, and I’d like to quote from it because some people claim that it declared the intellectual framework of the Cold War. Here’s what you said in part, quote: ”The key to an understanding of current Soviet foreign policy is the realization that Soviet leaders adhere to the Marxian theory of the ultimate destruction of Capitalist states by Communist states. The language of military power is the only language which disciples of power politics understand. Compromises and concessions are considered by the Soviets to be evidence of weakness.” Now today, many revisionist historians look back and say you exaggerated, that the bellicosity of that language, which led to these policies you describe, forced the Soviets to become belligerent because they saw you arming all the nations around them. Do you feel that analysis still holds 30 years later?
CLIFFORD: Yes. Nothing could be more wrong than the suggestion that we took the lead and then the Soviets followed and adopted their policies because of our position. President Truman wanted terribly to get along with the Soviets. He had met Stalin. He felt they could work out an arrangement. And at Potsdam they started down that course. The Soviets violated every single agreement they had made in Potsdam. The President still worked.
When we came up with the Marshall Plan — which came then as another, maybe, the fourth great leg in this policy to save the free world — most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, President Truman offered the Marshall Plan to the Soviet Union and said, “We will treat you the same as the nations of Western Europe. You’ve been through this holocaust, the worst war in history. You lost 20 million of your men in this war. We will help rebuild you.” They turned it down. But this was his suggestion. And the pressure that they were putting on the European countries is what necessitated our going into the Marshall Plan. And now historians are saying that perhaps the great accomplishment of this century has been for nations such as we, without any hope of personal or practical gain, to come in and save the world as it existed at that time. And that’s what did happen. Now, mind you, do you see, what Stalin said and what you read continued to be the policy of the Soviet Union. Do you remember when Mr. Kruschev came here. In one speech he said, “We are going to bury you.” Well, that’s the same way it goes.
MOYERS: As a former Secretary of Defense, do you think that either side will let the other gain military superiority in this kind of situation?
CLIFFORD: No. No, they won’t at all.
MOYERS: Doesn’t that mean the arms race is just bound to continue?
CLIFFORD: No. No, it should not. It is absolutely insane. It’s the ultimate end of absurdity for this race to go on.
MOYERS: But how do you —
CLIFFORD: Take the nuclear field, for instance. I attended a seminar three years ago. Every top nuclear scientist in the United States was there, and for four days we discussed all these problems. Some said if we had 100 nuclear devices that were deliverable to the Soviet Union that would be enough, particularly now that we MIRV them. We used to have only one warhead in each missile. Now we have as many as ten. I’ve seen those tests out in the Pacific. They send one of these over; they have ten separate targets; the accuracy is incredible. Ten separate warheads come from this instrument and each zeroes in on ten separate targets. Some of these men said if we have 100 of these missiles, that’s enough. We’d destroy anything of value in the Soviet Union. The one that said the most said 400 — if you had 400 deliverable missiles, that’s enough. Do you know how many we have? We have 10,000.
MOYERS: Well, you make me think, also, of the paradox of your having been a Hawk through the ’60s about Vietnam, and then Lyndon Johnson finally almost forcing you to become Secretary of Defense and you’re going over to the Pentagon and discovering that we couldn’t win that war, and convincing him that he couldn’t win it, and he had to start cutting back. He listened to you, yet he turned on you.
CLIFFORD: I’d had a long and very friendly relationship with him. It went back 25 years at that time. And I had worked with him before going to the Defense Department, and went because I was interested in it. It’s the field in which I had been trained. And I had felt that our policy was correct. I was guilty of the same misdiagnosis as practically everybody else in public life at the time. Do you remember the Tonkin Gulf Resolution? The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed by the House and the Senate and they authorized the President to use military force in Vietnam — a practical declaration of war. Do you know what the vote was? Only two against it. I think the vote was 412 to two in favor of that resolution. We all thought that what we had to do was face up to what was going on. We thought that there was a joint effort by Communist China and Communist Soviets to engulf the area there in Southeast Asia, as the effort had been made before by the Soviets after the Second World War.
MOYERS: What do you think there was in Lyndon Johnson’s personality that made him become so obsessive about the war?
CLIFFORD: Well, because we were in it and, to a certain extent, attacks against our forces in Vietnam were attacks against Lyndon Johnson. And he took it personally. And he just said, “By God, this is not going to be.”
MOYERS: It’s very dangerous, isn’t it, to confuse the identity and fortune of the President with the success and fortune of the nation? “I am the state.”
CLIFFORD: Yes, but to ameliorate that feeling that was the attitude of the House. That was the attitude of the Senate: ”These people are not going to push us around,” you know, when they fired on the destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, if they did. And so, we all rose up at the time, and there seemed to be justification for it. I accepted it, mistakenly, until I got to the Pentagon. And after a month in the Pentagon I knew that we were wrong, and I knew that: (a) it wasn’t really Communist aggression — what we were dealing with was a civil war in Vietnam; and I knew we had an absolute loser on our hands. We weren’t ever going to win that war.
MOYERS: But why did President Johnson turn on you after you had told him we had to reverse our policies in Vietnam?
CLIFFORD: This was a very difficult time for him. I had accepted his policy. He sent me over there in order to continue with this hard, stern, warlike policy as far as Vietnam is concerned. And then here’s this friend he’d know all this time, and he trusted. His friend comes back to him and says, “We are wrong.” Who’s we? That’s mainly the President In effect, without being too blunt, “Mr. President, you’re wrong. You’ve been wrong from the very beginning.” That’s a very bitter pill for a man to take. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want to hear it And yet, he had the courage and he had the character and he had the resolution — from that time on we met almost every day. Not alone, but in that cabinet room, we met almost every day talking this thing out And those first two or three months were as difficult days as men ever spent together.
MOYERS: What did he say to you?
CLIFFORD: He just said, “This isn’t right. Who sold you on this? Explain it to me.” Now this reason why my attitude worried him so was he knew that I had sincerely supported him before. And we had worked together for so many years that he knew that something had happened. And then I explained the whole thing and I brought the Joint Chiefs over. I sat in a tank with the Joint Chiefs for three days while we tried to talk this out. There’s where I finally learned they had no plan to win the war.
MOYERS: Why didn’t your predecessor, Secretary MacNamara, come to this conclusion? Was it because he, too, like Lyndon Johnson, had such a commitment to the commitment itself?
CLIFFORD: He was in the process of softening his attitude.
MOYERS: But Lyndon Johnson would never take it from MacNamara.
CLIFFORD: He would not. And, as he began to soften his attitude because he was getting the feel of this thing, President Johnson felt that he ought to have another job. So, it was kind of a mutual arrangement that Bob MacNamara left, and I think the President heaved a sigh of relief, said, “Now I’ve got a man there who’s going to be really hard-nosed.” And it was very disappointing to him.
MOYERS: And he had this unfathomable feeling about people who left him.
CLIFFORD: I remember one interesting incident, which gave you a wonderful indication of the general attitude of the press toward President Johnson, who was a very powerful man, and who brooked no opposition and who ruled from on high. And when he would be down at the ranch on vacation, his Press Secretary would hold an afternoon press conference. And the press would gather around and at that particular time his Press Secretary was named Bill. The fact is his name was Bill Moyers.
MOYERS: I remember.
CLIFFORD: And the story came back to me, I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it since, but at that particular time President Johnson and Bill Moyers had had a number of difficulties. And the relationship was terribly strained. If the President and a man working for him differed, it got pretty testy. So, this afternoon, one of the men in the press corps said, “Bill,” and you said, “Yes.” He said, “Where is the President this afternoon?” And you said to the press man, “He’s down at the lake.” And so, the pressman said, “Is he boating?” “No,” Bill Moyers said, “He’s taking a walk.”
MOYERS: Well, I should have followed Clark Clifford’s policy of a passion for anonymity.
CLIFFORD: Well, I learned later that the President had admitted that he thought that was as unfunny a joke as he’d ever heard. And I think you could almost count the days from that incident until we learned that Bill Moyers was out looking for other employment.
MOYERS: I took my own walk.
MOYERS: Johnson was the third president you served. The second, we haven’t touched upon, and that is John F. Kennedy, and that was an accident because somebody told me the biggest political mistake Clark Clifford ever made was in 1960, to support Stuart Symington for president instead of John F. Kennedy. Why did you do that?
CLIFFORD: A number of reasons. One is that Stuart Symington and I were very old friends.
MOYERS: Both from Missouri.
CLIFFORD: Both from St. Louis. He’d come from the East and come out to be head of one of the largest companies in Missouri. And we’d become friends and our wives had become friends. We both came to Washington by entirely different routes, and then resumed our friendship here and it became closer and closer as it has down to the present day. So, when he told me in, oh, I think it would be early 1959, that he was going to run for the presidency, I said at once I would be for him. And I worked for him — attended meetings and worked on the organization and all. During that period of time, and for some years, I had been John F. Kennedy’s lawyer.
MOYERS: While he was in the Senate?
CLIFFORD: While he was in the Senate. And we had become really quite good friends. And I remember the time that I first learned that he, also, was going to run for president.
MOYERS: How did that come about?
CLIFFORD: ABC Network had a program.
MOYERS: ABC Television?
CLIFFORD: ABC Television had a network [sic] which it ran every Monday night and Mike Wallace was on that program. It was a long time ago. And he would have different people on. One evening, on a Monday night, he had Drew Pearson, the columnist. Now you remember that Senator John F. Kennedy had written a book, Profiles in Courage — excellent book — and had won the Pulitzer Prize for it. On this ABC television program, which Mike Wallace put on, Drew Pearson said, “It is a national scandal that John F. Kennedy got the Pulitzer Prize for that book because he was not the author of the book.” Well. The roof fell in on the Kennedy family. I did not understand why they were all so excited about it at the time. President Kennedy came to see me right away and we got to work on it.
MOYERS: He was then Senator Kennedy?
CLIFFORD: Oh, excuse me, Senator Kennedy. His father, Ambassador Kennedy, called and said for me immediately to sue ABC for $50 million. Get the complaint in that day, and all. We had to go to some lengths to quiet him down. Well, as we got into it, I decided, after talking to ABC, Senator Kennedy and I should go to New York. We went to New York, and spent two days with a Mr. Goldenson, who was head of ABC, and maybe still is. And we took along longhand notes of Senator Kennedy that he’d written down in Florida when he was having a back problem, and then showed where his longhand notes appeared in the book. And then some research had been done by Ted Sorenson, a very able lawyer and assistant to Senator Kennedy, but every book has research that’s gone into it. But it was Senator Kennedy’s book. By the end of the second day, they agreed that they would retract the charge.
MOYERS: You proved that Kennedy had written the book.
CLIFFORD: Had written the book — that’s right. And so we sat down, the lawyers did, and we worked up a retraction statement. Well, President Kennedy — Senator Kennedy was delighted with it, because it was a very ugly situation; uglier than I knew because they didn’t want to carry that millstone around their neck. That afternoon, the second afternoon, he said, ”Well, you of course understand why this is so important to us.” And I said, “You’ll have to explain it to me.” And he said, “I will tell you in confidence, I am going to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.” Then it all became completely clear to me. At that particular time, he said, “We’ve worked together well these past years. I would hope that maybe you might be — able to support my candidacy.” And I said right away, “I will not be able to.” I said, “Stuart Symington and I have been friends for 25 years, and he talked to me months ago about it, and I said at once that I would support him.” Senator Kennedy’s reaction was absolutely typical. He said, “Of course, I understand why you’re doing it.” He said, “If I had had a friend for 25 years and he didn’t support me, I wouldn’t think he was much of a friend.” And so it made me feel much easier.
MOYERS: And you wound up, even though you supported Symington, heading Kennedy’s transition between the election and the inauguration.
CLIFFORD: Again, it was absolutely typical of him. Out in Los Angeles, we had a very spirited struggle, but after we finished this very spirited struggle a week went by and my phone rang and it was Senator Kennedy saying, ”I want you to come for breakfast.” I went for breakfast at 8:00 am. We sat through until 12:00. He said, “I want you to start in, and in the most meticulous detail go through the entire 1948 Truman-Dewey campaign.” And I did. He asked a lot of questions. At the end of that he said, “Thank you very much. This has been very useful.” “Now,” he said, “I want you to spend this summer writing up a plan of take — over.” He said, “I’m going to win this election.”
MOYERS: Said it that flatly?
CLIFFORD: He said it that flatly. “I’m going to win this election, and I don’t want to wake up the morning after being elected President, look at my father and my brother Bobby and my staff and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ I want a book right there in hand so we’ll know exactly what to do. “Well, it was real prescience, because that’s exactly what I did. I worked all summer on that book, and it ended up 70 or 80 pages, and the next morning after the election he called and said, “Do you have the book ready.” I said, “I do.” He said, “How many copies do you have?” I said, “Twenty.” He said, “I’ll send the Secret Service by and they’ll pick it up and bring it up to Hyannis.” Then the next morning he also went on the television and announced that I would be his transition man to work with the Eisenhower Administration, and I gave full time to that from election day until the 20th of January. And through that period, and prior, during the campaign, I became so impressed with Senator Kennedy’s professionalism.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
CLIFFORD: He went about everything in a professional manner. Sure, some mistakes are made. But, if so, then he’d admit the mistake and get right on.
MOYERS: Speaking of mistakes, do you think he should have appointed Bobby Kennedy to be Attorney General? Because the day after the election Lyndon Johnson said to me, “Clark Clifford is going to be Kennedy’s Attorney General.”
CLIFFORD: Well, that certainly wasn’t in President Kennedy’s mind. That’s a very interesting story, I’ll make it short. After he was elected, he went to Palm Beach and he rested for two or three days and called and said to come down. And I went down and stayed four days with him. And we went all through this document of the take-over: Which jobs are the most important; which must be appointed first; which reports have to get in first, like the Budget Report and the Economic Report. We went through all of that until he understood it very well. He said that his experience had been in the Legislative Branch and mine had been in the Executive Branch. Then about the third day we got to the Cabinet and discussed that. Than he said, “Now I have one thing I want to tell you.” He said, “My father wants me to appoint my brother Bobby as Attorney General. But,” he said, “I’m just really not completely comfortable with it. Bobby’s bright, and he’s done a marvelous job as campaign chairman, but I’m just not comfortable about it because Bobby hasn’t practiced law.” Well, I said, “I agree with you.” And I said, “I think there’s a good deal of merit to that.” “Well,” he said, “I tell you what I want you to do. When you finish down here I want you to go to New York and have a meeting with my father and see if you can persuade him that we ought to put Bobby someplace else.” And so I did that. I flew from Palm Beach up to New York, had luncheon. His father couldn’t have been nicer. He said we’d all worked together so well, gotten his son, Jack, elected. And I said, “I want to talk to you about Bobby.” And I explained all of the reasons why. He listened very politely, and he said, “Thank you very much. I appreciate that.” “Now,” he said, “we’ll turn to some other subject because,” he said, “Bobby is going to be Attorney General.” And so that ends that part of it, you see. And that ended that part of it. Well, now, just to show you the graceful manner in which President Kennedy handled things, he named Bobby Attorney General. He got an avalanche of criticism. The night after he was inaugurated, they had a dinner here called the “Alfalfa Dinner.” And in his remarks to that audience he said, “I have received a lot of criticism for appointing my brother Bobby as Attorney General.” “But,” he said, “folks, you don’t understand.” He says, “A young lawyer has got to get his experience someplace.” Well, everybody just howled and it took all the sting out of it. And, as a matter of fact, Bobby made a good Attorney General.
MOYERS: The story is that in many of the meetings that President Kennedy had with his Attorney General brother, you were present because the President wanted your legal advice since he knew that Bobby wasn’t a very good lawyer. Is that true, and was Bobby jealous?
CLIFFORD: Well, I can’t fathom the President’s reasoning. What he did was, as matters would come up that involved the Justice Department, he would call Bobby over and he would also include me. Now, I think he felt he got something. He got something from Bobby, and he got something from me. By that time, I may have practiced — been practicing 35 years, and I think he felt that from the combination he got something. It was perfectly alright with me, but I think that particular custom was just not too popular with Bobby.
MOYERS: In 1962, this is something I’ve always wanted to ask you about, you got involved, at Kennedy’s request — President Kennedy’s request — in negotiations to roll back the price of steel. You went up to New York to see Roger Blau, who was then running U.S. Steel, to tell him that the President wanted the price of steel to be reversed, that it was going to contribute substantially to inflation. Now, what tactics did you use with Roger Blau?
CLIFFORD: Well, the President phoned and said, “Come over.” And he was really angry. He said the steel industry came down and talked with him, and they said they had a very tough labor negotiation. The union contract was ending. And they would have liked to have had some assistance from the government because we wanted to try to keep the price of steel down, and if we could get a reasonable wage settlement with the union, it would help hold the price of steel down because we were engaged in quite an economic buildup at the time. So, he said, “I listened to them. I worked with them for weeks, even months, with the understanding that if we got a reasonable contract with the union, they would not raise the price of steel.” He said, “The contract was as solid and as unequivocal as two men can agree on.” He said, “I helped them. We got a splendid contract.” They said, “Mr. President, this is what we hoped we’d get. Thank you for the fine help.” And the next day they raised the price of both cold and hot steel — a substantial amount, $8.00 or $10.00 a ton. Now, he said, “I’m not going to stand for it. I don’t mean to have them go back on my contract, and I want you to go up there, get in touch with Roger Blau. I’ve already talked to him. I’ve told him you were coming. Go to New York and sit down and you persuade them to retract that price increase.” So, we went up — he had a suite in a hotel.
MOYERS: Now, be frank with me, because I know you gave him some frank talk.
CLIFFORD: Well, I cannot go into the details, but we went all that day, had luncheon and talked it out, and all that afternoon, had dinner and talked it out. I decided to stay on in New York. We stayed on. Went at it all the next day, and the President had already begun to suggest certain things that he might do. There’s a lot the government could do. The government, for instance, could stop buying steel from domestic steel companies, and buy all their steel abroad.
MOYERS: There were tax questions that could be raised.
CLIFFORD: Lots of tax questions.
MOYERS: Anti-trust investigations that could be started.
CLIFFORD: Possibly. All kinds of things, and those were gone into and at one stage he said, “Well, we’ll go half way.” And that was passed on to the President because it was felt necessary to. The President said, “Absolutely not. I want them to live up to the agreement.” By the end of the second day, there occurred what the President referred to in a press conference that he had as complete capitulation. They retracted all of the price increases and put the prices back where they had been before. It was an excellent victory for the President. The public responded very well to it.
MOYERS: What does it say about the use of presidential power?
CLIFFORD: It means that a man who understands the power of the presidency, who understands the potential of the presidency, can get almost anything accomplished.
MOYERS: [voice-over] This interview was first broadcast in 1981. Clark. Clifford is at work now on his memoirs. Recently, the lifelong Democrat became senior political and legal adviser to the embattled Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, who is defending himself against charges of unethical conduct in office.
I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 25, 2015.