Monday, November 3, 2014



Clair George eschewed shopping.  He certainly was not self-indulgent—except when it came to Scotch whiskey, red wine, and bacon-cheeseburgers—and he may well be the least materialistic person I ever met, aside from my father.  He did not wear jewelry, not even a wedding band; to tell the time he wore a cheap, large-faced round quartz wristwatch.

As far as I can tell, Clair never stepped foot into any shopping mall in the Greater Washington Area.  If he needed a new garment, he probably got it as a Christmas or birthday gift from his wife.  And if he desperately needed new togs, he had but one destination:  Brooks Brothers, which, conveniently, had a shop in Chevy Chase, a mile away from the George residence.

Although born and raised in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Clair was a creature of Washington DC.  He wore the uniform:  button-down shirt (white or blue), khaki trousers, and navy blue blazer, anchored with cordovan loafers.  There was nothing pretentious or fancy about his dress; he didn’t place a hankie in his blazer pocket.  Clair once told me that, in all his life, he’d never worn a pair of jeans.  And he was forever proud that he had once, between postings, driven his family (wife and two young daughters) across the United States in an old Volkswagen Beetle.

During our travels in Europe, Clair would window shop, if only because I window-shopped, while walking to and from hotels and meetings.  I once got him to join me in the purchase of bespoke shoes at Foster & Son on Jermyn Street in London.  We had just landed a billionaire client and we felt good about ourselves.  It was the only self-indulgent purchase I ever saw him make and, truth be known, I pushed him into it.

The beautiful calfskin wingtips took three months and three fittings to cobble, at a cost of about fifteen hundred dollars each pair.  When Clair finally got these spectacular shoes home to his modest Westgate neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland, he was so ashamed of himself over what they’d cost, he told no one of their existence and never wore them; instead, he hid them on a shelf inside his closet.  

Clair never forgot his humble roots, hailing from a poor coalmining town.  He lost his father suddenly when he was a boy, and always remembered the moment he and his sister were awakened by their mother and told their dad had died.  She raised them by herself.  Clair became a jazz drummer, joined the army, and trained at language school in Monterey, California.  The Korean War ended just before he was scheduled to ship out and commence interrogation duty. 

So instead, Clair joined the CIA, which was, in the mid- 1950s, still in its infancy.

It would not have been an easy ride for him, as the agency had become home to silver-spooned Ivy-Leaguers.

My old friend the late Miles Copeland, an old boy from Alabama, once told me the reason he left the agency soon after joining it on the heels of service in its wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, was because he felt insecure and out of place surrounded by Yankees from Harvard and Yale.

But Clair persevered and adapted to the ways of the privileged class, whose ranks vastly outnumbered him.   At CIA, he found his niche.   Innately secretive, with self-taught charisma, Clair was born to be a spy and a spymaster.  As he rose through the bureaucracy, proving his abilities again and again, he lived by this creed:  Keep them laughing half the time, scared of you the other half, and always keep them guessing.

Politically, Clair was a Democrat, and mostly liberal.  But he was also a professional.  Intelligence is apolitical, even if occasionally corrupted by leaders who demand policy-oriented intelligence to complement their political strategies.  And he was a master of obfuscation.  If pressured, he’d throw out his arms and say, “It’s very complicated,” and that would kill it dead.

One day in December of 1989, while I was living in the Principality of Monaco, a handwritten letter arrived from Clair.  I still have it.  He wrote of two consulting contracts, adding, "The projects I’m on may interest you.  I think it’s important to get together when you are next over here or I’m out your way.  Let me know your plans.  We will do something together yet."

It made my day, providing me hope for the future, as I had grown weary of Monaco and needed a new direction. 

I cut plans to visit Washington in April.   When I notified Clair, he graciously booked a room for me at the Chevy Chase Club, the DC area’s most exclusive country club, of which he was a member.

After I checked into Bradley House, a two-story structure of simple, elegant rooms appointed with colonial furnishings, Clair met me in its Winter Center for lunch.

This high-ceilinged multi-purpose lodge was the club’s casual hub, though not casual enough for blue jeans or cell phone use.  Caught twice violating such rules and the management ran you up the flagpole.

We ate hamburgers and chatted about my plan:  I wanted to move to Washington, where I had briefly attended The American University fourteen years before.  Clair connected me with a realtor (a family friend), and she toured me through the neighborhoods of Chevy Chase and Bethesda.

Two months later, I returned with my wife and daughter to search in earnest for a house to rent.  Again, Clair graciously put us into his club; he and Mary provided much advice, information, and connections for settling into a Washington existence.  Clair ended most phone conversations with, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”  And he meant it.

Sitting in Adirondack chairs overlooking the club’s immaculately landscaped golf course, sipping mint juleps, Clair said, “I’m probably never going to write a book.  With your sense of humor, you’ll do okay.  But maybe we can do something else together.”

I perked up.  “Something else?  Like what?”

“Solve problems.”

“But only for billionaires and royalty,” I quipped, tongue-in-cheek.

In truth, it sounded a lot more fun and profitable than the book business.

And that’s how our creative problem resolution enterprise began, as a joke, lubricated by bourbon and mashed mint leaves.

Clair and I also agreed that we would only accept assignments that possessed a high L.Q. (laugh quotient).  Simply put:  If it ain’t funny, we won’t do it.

“Okay,” said Clair.  “We’ve got brains, contacts, and a phone number.  Now all we need is clients.”

In fact, Clair already had a client, to which he had cryptically referred in his letter to me:  Barnum & Bailey Ringling Brothers Combined Circuses (hereafter referred to as The Circus).  

Post-CIA, Clair could have sat on White House panels or joined a think-tank like many of his contemporaries.  But he would have found those temples of pontification boring.  Instead, he tried to help acquire holy grails for the circus:  a panda from China; a white elephant and acrobats from North Korea.  Clair never needed to do crossword puzzles; he preferred puzzling real life situations.

Clair did not have an office.  Washington DC was his office.  He would spend the day “floating around” (his parlance).  This was, of course, before the days of pocket-able cell phones. He might float from a meeting at the Pentagon to the White House, then to lunch, and on to the State Department, stopping along the way at public telephones (he knew them all) to check messages on his home phone answering machine, check in with various persons, myself included, before floating home late in the afternoon, at which point his wife’s social calendar took priority.

Over the next six weeks we met, talked on the phone, and deliberated about working together as problem resolution consultants.  I bought a book entitled How to be a Top Consultant, read it, gave it to Clair.  We talked some more, agreed in principle to find clients, and we settled on a name:  Intelligence Specialists.

To quasi-officialize our business relationship, we printed a card with a mission statement and contact details (never used), and we opened a bank account, on which we were both signatories, at Madison Savings & Loan.  Afterwards, we lunched at DeCarlo’s, Clair’s favorite neighborhood restaurant, which became our de facto office for meetings.  Aside from the cost of a meal, we had no overhead.  No secretaries, no advertising, nothing.  

After I moved into a townhouse on Westbard Avenue, a half-mile from where the Georges resided, something fell serendipitously into my lap of deep concern to The Circus. The ensuing assignment lasted five years and wound up in court for almost twice as long, providing one of the finest learning experiences of my life.  

A condition of settlement is that I am excluded from ever writing about that mission—a great pity, as only the plaintiff’s side was ever told in the media.

That December, Clair and Mary invited my wife and I to their 35th wedding anniversary bash at the Chevy Chase Club.  

One of Clair’s close friends befriended me and pointed out all the biggest names from the CIA, current and retired.  I chuckled at the notion that not even Halloween could produce so many spooks, and felt privileged to be among them.

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