Keeper of the Seal

Clifford Clark
Clifford Clark; drawing by David Levine

When not arranging the fate of nations, Clark Clifford took on humbler tasks, he informs us with a knowing grimace. One such assignment, offered almost as comic relief in this book of grand designs, came from Jacqueline Kennedy when she moved to the White House. Mrs. Kennedy, casting about for a weekend place to stay in “hunt country,” had fixed her eye on Glen Ora, a four-hundred-acre estate. But the owner, a Mrs. Tartiere, did not want to sell or rent her house. She had the effrontery to prefer keeping what Mrs. Kennedy was determined to have. When the normal realestate agents failed, Mrs. Kennedy turned to Clark Clifford, the man who had served the Kennedys in earlier emergencies (handling the charge that John Kennedy was not the real author of his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, coping with Edward Kennedy’s cheating record at Harvard).

Clifford said that, in his emollient terminology, he would “establish a relationship” with Mrs. Tartiere. But the determined widow, who had lived in her house since her husband’s death, resisted even Clifford’s fabled blandishments. He deployed all his resources, using charm, name-dropping, flattery, cajolery, and dough. Still no sale. Then he played his trump card:

I appealed to Mrs. Tartiere on what amounted to national security grounds, saying that one should not refuse a President such a reasonable request, especially if it would help ease the great burdens of his office. This time, Mrs. Tartiere very reluctantly agreed….

Mrs. Kennedy drew Clifford a special valentine, which he reproduces in his book, with the caption “Jacqueline Kennedy’s charming thank-you note….” She pictures a jaunty Mr. Clifford striding briskly toward a house with his briefcase full of tools. Those sticking out of the case are labeled Tortures, Places of Exile, List of Jails. It has become another Kennedy family joke, and an addition to the Clifford legend for performing impossible tasks, that a woman was bullied out of her home for the First Lady’s convenience. But what should be most interesting to us is the resort Clifford fell back on when all else failed. This little story is a parable, in ways Clifford himself does not recognize. There are three serious lessons here.

When someone in authority wants something, and the matter cannot be decided on its merits, invoke national security. When appropriations are asked for and Congress stalls, say that national security demands this weapon, or that education grant. Dwight Eisenhower said it was a matter of national security to build interstate highways for wartime troop movements and evacuation of cities.

National security measures, invoked against foreign enemies, are really more useful as weapons to be used on American citizens. Premier Khrushchev was not inconvenienced by Mrs. Kennedy’s weekends at Glen Ora, but Mrs. Tartiere was. The “secret bombings of Cambodia” were no secret to those being bombed. They were only a secret to the United States Congress,…

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