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The Insider's Insider : COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT: By Clark Clifford ; with Richard Holbrooke ; (Random House: $25; 693 pp.)

June 30, 1991|Peggy Noonan | Noonan was a speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Bush. Her most recent book is "What I Saw at the Revolution" (Random House).

This fine and valuable Washington memoir is not history according to a gifted and impartial historian, but history according to a great liberal who saw men and events through a certain prism. It has its biases, of which more later, but they are redeemed by the fact that this is first-person testimony from a man of enormous and focused energy who was there in the room when many of the political decisions that shaped the modern postwar world were being made.

First-person history is something history needs more of, William Safire once said--and that is this book's great contribution. (Or, as Clifford and his talented collaborator, Richard Holbrooke, might put it, "On a crisp, bright winter morning in January of 1990 I breakfasted with the eloquent and pugnacious New York Times columnist William Safire who, according to my notes, mentioned in passing a fact that would linger: 'First person history is the one thing history doesn't have enough of!'--this uttered with his usual conviction, and a certain colloquial zip." It's that kind of book, written with precision in a kind of modern-stately style.)

Some people want to go to the party. Clifford, for a quarter-century beginning in 1945, was of the small group in Washington who threw it. He mixed drinks in the smoking car on the train to Fulton, Mo., as Truman played poker with Churchill and chatted about the Iron Curtain speech. He helped create the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. He played a critical role in the U.S. decision to recognize and support the state of Israel. He was John Kennedy's lawyer, helping him fight plagiarism charges and survive the Bay of Pigs. He was Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Defense and, as one of the fabled Wise Men, tried to get L.B.J. to get out of Vietnam. The stories he tells are of great moment.

His recounting of how the United States came to recognize Israel is tantalizing--it was young White House aide Clifford toe to toe in the Oval Office against the revered George C. Marshall--and surprising. There is no Jewish tailor here, telling his friend Harry at a pivotal moment that the Jews of the world, having suffered through Hitler, have a simple right to a homeland. Instead, a Truman generally inclined to help the Jews seems to allow himself to be maneuvered into recognition.

Clifford even seems to have overstated the President's commitment to opponents of recognition in order to make the outcome he sought appear inevitable. He reminds us that a significant segment of American Jews--including Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times and Eugene Meyer of the Washington Post, opposed Zionism, and almost the entire American foreign-policy Establishment, from Secretary of State Marshall to Undersecretary Robert Lovett and including Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan and Defense Secretary James Forrestal--opposed recognition. Marshall, who heatedly told the President that if he took this decision he would vote against him in the next election, broke with tradition to record explicit minutes of the meeting, sure that history would find him in the right.

All this is riveting. Still, Clifford communicates the passion of the disagreement somewhat better than the content: He doesn't fully explain why he felt it both morally right and in America's interests to recognize Israel, nor does he do full justice to the arguments against.

Clifford paints the New Frontier in broad and loving strokes. His Kennedy is a fallible prince, his Camelot a territory to be celebrated by the campfire but left, essentially, unexplored. He offers an unsurpassed portrait of the tension in the Johnson White House during Vietnam, and a knowing and compassionate portrait of Lyndon Johnson. And he gives the fullest account I have seen of the tragedy of Defense Secretary James Forrestal.

(Note to mystery- and screen-writers: This is a fascinating story, still not known or told in its entirety, of how a brilliantly successful and influential cabinet member, suffering under the delusion that somebody was after him--and maybe somebody was, or some thing --was placed in the psychiatric section of a military hospital where he was not allowed to see visitors, and from an unguarded window of which he jumped to his death. He left behind a poetry anthology from which he had copied by hand the "Chorus from Ajax" by Sophocles: "Better to die, and sleep/ The never waking sleep, than linger on/ And dare to live, when the soul's life is gone.")

Clifford is a self-assured and easygoing ideologue, an old-time liberal who wouldn't be embarrassed to show up in a limousine, or to take the attitude when America gave Ronald Reagan double landslides that the country is just a little bit behind those of us in Pamela Harriman's drawing room, and America just ought to catch up!

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