Sad news comes today of the passing of William P. Clark, who passed away this morning at his ranch near Paso Robles after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Clark served Ronald Reagan as deputy secretary of state (chiefly to keep an eye out on Al Haig), national security adviser, and secretary of the Interior.
Known as “The Judge” from his tenure on the California Supreme Court (to which Reagan had appointed Clark when Reagan was governor), Clark is the only senior member of the president’s inner circle who never wrote a memoir of his time with Reagan, reflecting his supreme modesty, closely related to his devout Catholic faith, and his discretion. But he was the most important and influential presidential confidante since Harry Hopkins, and we have Paul Kengor and Clark’s niece Patricia Clark Doerner to thank for a fine biography The Judge, William P. Clark: Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand. I reviewed The Judge in the Claremont Review of Books when it appeared back in 2007. Here’s part of the review:
Clark was a true Cincinnatus, entering public service reluctantly and without personal ambition, and longing always to return to the plough. As they did Reagan, the media and his opponents consistently underestimated and ridiculed him, though he was supremely able. In some respects Clark could be considered Ronald Reagan without the Hollywood personality, and indeed the judge stands out as the one person with whom the president was personally close—the exception to Reagan’s well-known personal distance. (Clark is the person who originated the famous slogan, “let Reagan be Reagan.”)
With access to Clark’s private papers and other previously restricted sources, Kengor and Doerner detail for the first time many of Clark’s exploits, especially his crucial role as national security advisor in 1982 and 1983, when Reagan’s Soviet strategy took definite shape. His role in the president’s March 1983 speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative was decisive. Virtually everyone in the upper reaches of the administration was against the speech, except for Clark. It is hard to imagine Reagan going through with it without the judge’s back-up. Clark was the best of Reagan’s six national security advisors—the authors argue he was one of the best for any president ever—and when he stepped down it was mostly because he thought the tensions between him and the State Department were hurting his boss. Few public servants are so self-effacing.
Clark was Reagan’s go-to person for discreet missions to foreign leaders, which continued even after he formally left the administration in 1985. Kengor and Doerner provide inside accounts of Clark’s private meetings with François Mitterrand, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, the leaders of China, and Saddam Hussein. There is also the first complete account of his successful 1983 mission to South America to prevent Suriname from becoming another Nicaragua. And The Judge provides a useful account of Clark’s extensive efforts to blunt the nuclear freeze movement and the pacifism of the Catholic bishops. [Kengor’s] The Crusader and The Judge deserve to take their place among essential studies of Reagan. With these works, the literature on Reagan’s foreign policy is more or less complete—until additional classified documents are released or new Soviet sources are revealed.
I only got to meet Clark once or twice in person, and, like Ed Meese, he was such a gentleman that he would never dish on his rivals and critics in the administration. But he did share some details about a number of key events, though never once burnishing his own role in the outcome as he might well have done with ample justification.
Here’s my account of Clark’s departure as NSA from The Age of Reagan:
In the middle of the growing crises of Lebanon and Grenada in mid-October, Bill Clark decided to step down as national security adviser. Clark had been talking with Reagan about leaving since January. The constant friction between Shultz and Weinberger, and the relentless undercutting Clark received from Baker and Deaver, who abetted a ferocious media campaign against Clark, had worn him to the breaking point, and, in Clark’s own view, diminished his ability to serve Reagan adequately in the post. The NSC process was becoming dysfunctional again. Clark wanted to return to his quiet life as a rancher in California, and had never intended to stay in Washington beyond two years. Reagan had prevailed upon him to stay on as national security adviser at the end of 1982, and now convinced Clark to replace James Watt as secretary of the interior, which Clark found more agreeable. Conservatives inside and outside the White House were dismayed. Jeane Kirkpatrick said “It is an unmitigated disaster for him to leave. That decision shouldn’t have been made. And, once made, it should have been rescinded.”
Clark’s departure set in motion another power struggle. James Baker and Mike Deaver saw an opportunity to solidify their power over Meese, and Reagan initially decided to name Baker his new national security adviser and Deaver to be Baker’s replacement as chief of staff. But when confronted with ferocious opposition from Clark, Meese, Casey, Kirkpatrick, and Weinberger, Reagan changed his mind, much to the annoyance and disappointment of Baker and Deaver. (“You don’t have enough confidence in me to make me chief of staff!”, an angry Deaver shouted at Reagan in the Oval Office.) The opposition was partly on the merits, but also contained an element of payback. A few months before, Baker and Deaver had attempted to enlist Clark in an intrigue to ease out Meese, but miscalculated; Clark sided firmly with Meese and scuttled the plan. Casey, Meese, and others urged Reagan to select Kirkpatrick as Clark’s NSC replacement, but Shultz objected. Faced with these irreconcilable factions, Reagan chose Clark’s deputy, Robert McFarlane, as the compromise pick to be national security adviser, which assured that the Pentagon-State Department/ Weinberger-Shultz feuds would continue. McFarlane, a Marine veteran, had a quiet demeanor that led some to dismiss him as “a quintessential staff man.” New Right activist Paul Weyrich dimissed McFarlane as having been “created by God to disappear into crowds,” but this is unfair and inaccurate. Michael Ledeen, among others, discerned McFarlane’s “distinctly hawkish instincts” that comported with Reagan’s hard line side. But he lacked Clark’s personal ties to Reagan that made Clark so effective. “It was an unhappy day all around,” Reagan wrote in his diary of the staff discord. “My decision not to appoint Jim Baker as national security adviser, I suppose, was a turning point for my administration,” Reagan wrote later in his memoirs, “although I had no idea at the time how significant it would prove to be.”