One of the great and sometimes overlooked resources for researchers on modern presidents is the Oral History Project of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. The oral histories they compiled were invaluable resources for my own Reagan book research almost ten years ago, saving me the trouble of having to re-interview many key people.
There was one file that was closed to researchers, however—the oral interview with William P. Clark, whose passing we noted here last weekend. He had stipulated that it was not to be opened before his passing, and today the Miller Center released it, and kindly alerted me first that it is finally available. The interview was conducted ten years ago this week by Stephen Knott, currently of the Naval War College (and who is slated for a Power Line 100 appearance as soon as I can get back to the series), and it contains some extraordinary—and extraordinarily candid—material. A few samples. First, Clark recounts how Reagan decided to confront and defuse college protesters at the state capitol in Sacramento when Reagan was governor:
Knott: This was also a time of a lot of student protests on the campuses, and in particular in Berkeley. Any particular recollections from the Berkeley student difficulties?
Clark: Yes, of course, the record is clear. He actually went to the campuses of Berkeley and Santa Cruz. I recall in the first days of the gubernatorial period, 1967, Mr. [Gordon Paul] Smith was then director of finance looking at different potential sources of revenue. One item for discussion was tuition at the University of California system’s nine campuses. Somehow that discussion leaked out to the media. There was immediate reaction from the faculty senate at Berkeley, and student protests were planned. They planned a Saturday afternoon march, I think it was in February of ’67, so some 5,000 gathered on the mall in Sacramento to march on the Capitol.
We staff felt it was fortunate that the Governor was to be out of town that Saturday, visiting Governor [Thomas Lawson] McCall in Oregon to compare problems and solutions, and he wouldn’t be there. However, Ronald Reagan being Ronald Reagan, on hearing of the plan for the march said, “I’m not going up there. I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” So we said, “Governor, if you keep your appointment, we’ll handle the march and the protest.” He said, “No, I’d like to be able to meet them and talk to them.” But he didn’t want it known.
So we stayed in the corner office, which was his office in the Capitol. I recall it was a cold, foggy morning and he said, “Let me know when they’re out there.” I said, “Yes, Governor, we will. Are you sure you want to go out there? These people are quite angry. They were even discussing the possibility of tuition at the UC campuses.” And he said, “Oh, yes, we have to do this.”
So we could hear the shouting and the leader speaking to them from the steps of the Capitol. And he went to the north end of the building and he said, “Bill, isn’t it time that we walk on down the hall and join them?” I said, “Governor, if you insist, we will.” So we walked through the double doors to the steps where this man was carrying on, I think he was a student leader. He of course couldn’t see us approach, his back would be to us as we went out the doors, but this vast crowd suddenly spotted the Governor himself and shocked faces told the speaker that something was going on behind him.
He turned around and saw the Governor and in shock just handed him the mike as a matter of courtesy. He was stunned, and the Governor of course in a very few minutes had the—maybe not the group in his hand by any means, but gave a rational explanation as to different options but no decisions being made and expressed he was glad to see them this morning. He effectively won the day. While we had very little support for college tuition, one long Western Union telegram that morning in support, it was a two-pager: “If you need help, let us know. We agree with tuition for all students.” Signed by the Sacramento chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Needless to say he didn’t accept their help. We listened to them, however.
Anyway, several of us fanned out to different campuses to explain the tuition issue. He did go aboard the campuses at several junctures. Again, he was always well received. I recall the first time we went onto the UC campus at Berkeley, he was very quiet, studying the scene and this one particular group of poorly dressed, straggly, we were not sure they were students, beards and long hair on the men and one carrying a sign, “Make love, not war.” The Governor leaned over and he said, “Bill, do you think they’re capable of either?” I didn’t answer. [laughter]
Knott: The story you were telling about walking into the meeting and the speaker handing him the microphone. I guess I’m trying to get a picture, it sounds as if he sort of took command of the room, is that an accurate—?
Clark: It would have been outside, a crowd of 5,000 had gathered on the lawn and on the steps. I still have a good photo of that. I can’t recall his words, though I’m sure they’re of record somewhere press-wise, but it calmed the crowd and showed that he was quite willing—I don’t know that it ever came out that he had canceled a trip to Oregon to be with them. He wouldn’t have said that himself. . .
I especially like the little bit about the Hell’s Angels.
There are lots of candid comments about the rivalries inside the White House, and the role of Nancy Reagan. This passage is particularly direct:
Knott: It’s interesting to me that Michael Deaver was part of this Baker/Darman/Gergen group since he goes back to the old days in a sense. I don’t know how far you want to comment on that, but how do you explain the defection of one of the old California hands?
Clark: It was not only defection, but some people called it “Potomac fever.” When he got back there—Mike was born in Bakersfield, which is a farm town just over the mountain from where we’re sitting. He certainly was efficient and loyal to me throughout the Sacramento days. He couldn’t have been greater, innovative. But once we got to Washington, the mystery among the Sacramento group, from Helene Von Damm to Nofziger to Meese and many others who were asked to come back with the Governor, President—something happened. I don’t know whether it was the water or what. A real breach there. I tried to bridge, restore the relationship, life being the blink of an eye, but I haven’t been successful in that regard. I think he worried that not only the President but others of us would embarrass ourselves sooner or later. I hope I’ve not yet embarrassed our President. Meese certainly hasn’t, either in—rather self-serving statements, but let the record stand where it is.
Knott: Another somewhat awkward question. It appears at least from the outside that there were plenty of occasions when Nancy Reagan accepted the Baker/Deaver perspective. Is that an accurate statement?
Clark: Oh, yes, it’s been written certainly many times. The real troika, frankly, in the White House, in the opinion of many, would be Nancy, Baker, and Deaver. Whether it was the Don Regan matter or—the litany of incidents involving personnel or attempted policy. But they were so anxious that Ronald Reagan be shown as the Peace President, the Nobel Peace Prize and anything else under that heading. They felt therefore that people like me had to, we used the term earlier, hard-line on the Soviets. Yet I was reflecting Ronald Reagan who said, “I will not go to a summit unless there is at least one major issue resolved in advance. I want to be able to see the agenda, but we’re not going to negotiate for negotiation’s sake. Détente has never worked. The only way that we’re going to do this is peace through strength, moral strength and military strength.” But the three of them, God love them, Nancy, Jim, and Mike, just felt that that was not the way to go into office or to come out of office and be remembered.
Clark is slightly reticent about sharing details about the specifics of our involvement with Pope John Paul II and the Vatican in making mischief behind the Iron Curtain, especially in Poland, but this passage suggests there may have been a lot more we’ve still never heard much about—especially in the second passage below, which slightly contradicts the first paragraph:
Knott: There was a lot written after the administration about the so-called “holy alliance” between—I’m borrowing a book title from Carl Bernstein—I believe this relationship between the United States government, the Reagan administration, and the Pope, particularly regarding Poland. I’d be interested in any reflections you have on that, the extent to which there was either a formal or informal alliance between the Vatican and the United States.
Clark: For a while there was a suggestion that there was some type of conspiracy or collusion between the two entities, and there was none. There was common mission, common purpose. The President’s view was that if Poland started to unravel, the whole Soviet Empire would come down. We swapped intelligence, and as I recall the Bernstein article, or I guess Catholic World Report, interviewed me as well on the subject between the two—in fact, I think you put that in your syllabus, didn’t you?
Knott: It’s in there somewhere.
Clark: Bernstein was close. I think part of it was a little overdramatic. But factually—and I’ve not reread it in years—it was not far off. I know that the Vatican denied some of it but I think they had to, Cardinal [Pio] Laghi did. But Casey and I would go up Connecticut Avenue to meet with Cardinal Laghi on Central America and the Soviets and the Poles. We had kind of a code word, “Could we stop in for cappuccino?” That would mean that we had to see him right away. He came to the White House a few times to give us intelligence.
There’s lots more fascinating material in the interview, including Clark’s attempt to persuade Reagan to issue early pardons to everyone caught up in the Iran-Contra affair (Clark had left the administration by the time of this scandal), and how the idea was scuttled chiefly by Nancy Reagan. I was pleased also to see Clark is a fan of Derek Leebart’s idiosyncratic book on the Cold War, The Fifty-Year Wound. Clark notes toward the end:
Clark: I mentioned Leebaert and his Fifty-Year Wound. In fact he didn’t know [Reagan], had no particular political philosophy, a Georgetown professor. I forget his exact words but effectively the two great Presidents of the 20th century were Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. The primary reason for that is that they had no self-agenda, they were not on a power kick. The power to them was at times anathema, but they were trying always to do the correct thing for the common good.