Frontpage is very saddened to report that William P. Clark, also known as “Bill Clark” or “Judge Clark,” passed away on Saturday, August 10, 2013. He was Ronald Reagan’s closest aide, friend, and most influential adviser, and the central figure in the Reagan administration’s effort to bring down Soviet communism. Born October 23, 1931 in Oxnard, California, he was 81 years old upon his passing. He now joins his beloved wife, Joan.
Frontpage editors felt it appropriate to run the interview below with Paul Kengor, from our Dec. 26, 2007 issue, in memory of Clark:
The American Who Defeated Soviet Communism
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, and author of several books, including a number of major works on Ronald Reagan and the Cold War, including The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. His most recent book is the first biography of William P. “Bill” Clark, titled, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand, which Kengor has co-authored with Patricia Clark Doerner.
FP: Paul Kengor, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Kengor: It is always a pleasure to join FrontPage Interview, Jamie.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Kengor: Bill Clark is the untold story of the Reagan years and particularly the Reagan assault on Soviet communism. He is the untold story of the end of the Cold War. I’m fully confident in asserting that next to Ronald Reagan himself, Bill Clark was the most influential American in the defeat of Soviet communism. On top of that, he has a fascinating, moving personal story.
All of that, Jamie, and yet, as Edmund Morris (the official Reagan biographer) noted, Clark is largely unknown, and certainly unheralded, despite being, as Morris himself called him, the “most impressive” member of Reagan’s inner circle. Why is he forgotten? Because unlike most people in Washington and public life, he never promoted himself, never wanted the attention and limelight, and never wanted much beyond his family and his California ranch. He did his service out of a duty to Ronald Reagan, to country, to God, and to history.
After all that, one morning in Washington, DC in the mid-1980s, he quite literally saddled his horse one last time—Clark actually rode his horse around the Mall early mornings near the Capitol, which was quite a sight—and rode off into the sunset and never told his story.
I didn’t need inspired to write this one. The key was to convince Clark to agree to a biography. For decades he was pressured to do so. Everyone who knew anything about the Reagan years, from liberal biographers to top officials, were unanimous in realizing the importance of Clark’s contributions—from Michael Reagan and Cap Weinberger to Lou Cannon and Maureen Dowd. He could have sold his story for big bucks in the 1980s, but he refused. As National Review noted in an article profiling him as one the leading “unsung conservatives,” Clark was the only major Reagan figure—and far and away the most significant—to not write memoirs.
FP: How powerful was Clark? How about in comparison to Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski?
Kengor: He was a remarkably powerful national security adviser, which is especially remarkable given that he didn’t desire power. He had no ego whatsoever.
I was taught that Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were the most powerful national security advisers. A professor of mine at grad school who wrote books on the National Security Council, and these guys who ran it, thought Reagan was a moron, and I can’t recall him saying anything about Clark. In my research on Reagan, particularly at the Reagan Library and through the reading of newly declassified documents, it became immediately clear from the primary-source materials that Clark was extremely influential. I soon realized he was up there with Kissinger and Brzezinski.
Then, one day, I was interviewing Roger Robinson, a very impressive NSC staff member who was Clark’s point man in the economic-warfare campaign against the USSR. Robinson told me that he believed Clark was even more powerful than Kissinger and Brzezinski. This was because of his utterly unique rapport and influence with an extremely powerful president—a president who had an enormous impact on world events. Reagan biographers describe the two as like brothers. Robinson says it was as if they were cut from the same strand of DNA.
Neither Jimmy Carter and Brzezinski, nor Gerald Ford and Kissinger, nor Richard Nixon and Kissinger, had a similar relationship. Ford and Carter were weak presidents. Brzezinski was thwarted and frustrated by Carter’s siding with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Kissinger was very much treated as Nixon’s subordinate. Robinson states unequivocally: “As a pair, in particular, it’s difficult to equal Ronald Reagan and Bill Clark.” He’s right.
Aside from Robinson’s testimony, every major story on Clark at the time, from the dailies to the weeklies, agreed that next to the president, Clark was the most powerful man in Washington, which, by extension, ranked him among the most powerful men in the world. One of my favorite observations on this came from the cover story on Clark in the New York Times Magazine of August 14, 1983 —the same week he was on the cover of Time—which noted that White House colleagues observed Clark returning from his private meetings with Reagan and “prepared themselves for the important decisions to come.” These two men together hammered out the track for the railroad, with the final destination being the undermining of the Soviet Union .
My conclusion, based on evidence, not on an unwarranted bias to my subject, is that Bill Clark indeed was the most influential national security adviser this country has seen.
FP: Why and how did Reagan hire him? Give us the drama in the confirmation hearings.
Kengor: Before he took over the NSC in January 1982, Clark was appointed by Reagan as deputy secretary of state, the #2 at State. He had known Clark since the mid-1960s, when Clark had been his loyal and crucial chief of staff when Reagan was governor. Why did Reagan put him at State? As one Republican congressman put it, Reagan needed “an America desk” at State.
Unfortunately for Clark, this meant he had to go through Senate hearings. The Democratic senators pilloried Clark for his lack of foreign-policy experience, largely because he had spent the 1970s as a judge (appointed by Reagan all the way up to the California Supreme Court). The liberal press jumped into the feeding frenzy, reporting inaccurate information about Clark’s academic record.
Most damaging, however, was the work of Senator Joe Biden (D-DE). After telling Clark how much he admired him, he then subjected Clark to an embarrassing pop quiz on foreign leaders, such as “Who is the prime minister of Zimbabwe?” Biden knew Clark wouldn’t know those answers. As this went on and on, he kept apologizing, “Gee, Judge, I hate to do this, I really do. I’m really sorry….” Biden humiliated Clark. The whole world reported on the spectacle, which the Washington Post rightly titled “The Interrogation of Justice Clark.” Foreign papers called him a “nitwit” and the “Don’t Know Man. ”
What the press never saw was what Biden said to Clark after the hearings, and which Clark didn’t share until this book. Biden said: “Hey, Judge, no hard feelings…. And don’t worry: I didn’t know the answers to those questions either.”
The Soviets, by the way, were thrilled with Biden’s work. They were fearful of Clark, knowing he was a hardliner who would allow “Reagan to be Reagan”—Clark’s phrase—and would join Reagan in squeezing them. They knew Clark was not a wishy-washy pragmatist or moderate. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, turned Biden’s performance into a press release, and ran stories in Pravda. The communists would still be crowing about Clark’s alleged incompetence—citing these hearings—when Reagan brought him to the NSC a year later. So, Biden provided an effective tool for Moscow through the duration of Clark’s service to Reagan.
For the record, other Democrats especially hard on Clark were Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Senator John Glenn (D-OH). In the end, Clark received more “no” votes—all from Democrats—than any Reagan appointee. The Soviets were quite pleased with the liberals.
By the way, Michael Moore, continuing a liberal tradition of supplying useful idiots into the post-Cold War period, highlighted Clark and the hearings in his bestselling 2001 book, Stupid White Men.
Think about this, Jamie: With the help of American liberals, the Soviets were able to caricature these two critical men, Bill Clark and Ronald Reagan—the two chief players orchestrating the communist collapse—as incompetent buffoons. It is difficult for us to conceive the degree to which the left, wittingly or unwittingly, aided and abetted the communist cause.
FP: What was Clark’s contribution to the end of the Cold War? How exactly did he serve Reagan?
Kengor: That’s covered over about 250 pages in the book, and too much to recount here. In short, he laid the foundation to undermine the Soviet empire through a bunch of NSDDs—National Security Decision Directives—that involved efforts from building up the military through a policy of “peace through strength,” to a concerted plan of economic warfare. On the latter, Clark told me about a priceless moment in 1982 when Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin whispered to Clark: “You have declared war on us, economic war.” Clark told me what he couldn’t tell Dobrynin back then, “Yes, we had.” The left might have underestimated Reagan and Clark, but the Soviets did not.
Clark also ensured that SDI was shepherded through, and not sunk pre-emptively by White House moderates. He saw to it that Reagan’s speeches like the 1982 Westminster Address and 1983 Evil Empire speech were not edited of their essence by White House moderates fearful of offending Moscow. He championed programs like the MX missile. He ran secret missions that until this book have not been revealed—like the very significant classified trip to South America in April 1983, where Clark and a few men kept the little country of Suriname from falling into the Soviet-Cuban camp, which would have been far more damaging than anyone reading this right now realizes. He became the principle liaison between Reagan and Pope John Paul II. That’s a short list.
FP: Tell us exactly what Clark and Reagan were planning. Were they planning this in private, just the two of them?
Kengor: The “plan” is evident in the now declassified NSDDs. Clark was the man who oversaw the creation of every single one of the historic, bold NSDDs that laid the foundation to undermine the USSR. They were all done in a very brief window while Clark was national security adviser. These include NSDD-32—which was the cornerstone for supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland—NSDD-66, NSDD-75, all the way up to NSDD-120, starting with NSDD-2. I will quote just a couple of them:
NSDD-32 was signed by Reagan on May 20, 1982 . Tom Reed, the excellent NSC aide hired by Clark , called NSDD-32, “The Plan to Prevail.” The language in NSDD-32 speaks for itself, stating this Reagan administration objective: “To contain and reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world…. [T]o contain and reverse the expansion of Soviet influence worldwide.”
NSDD-75 was signed by Reagan on January 17, 1983 . It committed the administration to two core “ U.S. tasks” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union : First, “To contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism…. This will remain the primary focus of U.S. policy toward the USSR .” And, secondly, “To promote, within the narrow limits available to us, the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system in which the power of the privileged ruling elite is gradually reduced.”
By the way, another hero in this was the NSC’s Eastern Europe expert, Professor Richard Pipes, on leave from Harvard, whose pen was responsible for the aforementioned objective articulated in NSDD-75. Pipes told me about how George Shultz’s State Department actually fought to remove that language—i.e., the words that set forth the goal of winning the Cold War and changing the course of human history. The Soviets saw it that way as well, stating in an analysis in a Russian newspaper: “Directive 75 speaks of changing the Soviet Union ’s domestic policy. In other words, the powers that be in Washington are threatening the course of world history, neither more nor less.”
Clark was chief among those “powers that be.” It was due to Reagan’s and Clark’s insistence that Pipes’ extraordinary, prophetic language remained in the text.
FP: Did they meet any resistance inside the White House? By whom?
Kengor: Oh, yes. The moderates—also known as the pragmatists. There were a bunch of moderates in the White House who did not like Clark, or who at the least were strongly opposed to him ideologically. Jim Baker, Mike Deaver, David Gergen, Dick Darman, and even Nancy Reagan, to name a few. Nancy Reagan and Mike Deaver and Jim Baker in particular concluded that Clark was too hard-line and had to go. They did not like the anti-Soviet direction where he was leading Ronald Reagan. In fact, Clark insisted that he was merely reinforcing where Reagan wanted to go, and ensuring that Reagan’s desires were met. Clark did not see Reagan as a bumbling old man there to be controlled by those who believed they were smarter than Reagan.
Richard Pipes, for instance, was startled by the behavior of Baker and Deaver toward the president. Pipes said of the pair: “they seemed to treat him rather like a grandfather whom one humors but does not take very seriously.” Pipes observed that this was not the case with Clark, nor Ed Meese for that matter.
In the end, these individuals wanted Clark fired. Nancy pushed for him to be fired. Nancy and Deaver felt that one day the Nobel Committee would show up with a Peace Prize for Reagan, if only that Neanderthal Bill Clark would quit dragging his knuckles and get out of the way.
By the way, four years later, Nancy also wanted all the Iran-Contra figures to be tossed overboard. It was Clark , then no longer in the Reagan administration, who urged their pardons and even wrote a draft pardon statement for the president. That statement and those letters are published for the first time in this book. Clark believes that Reagan favored issuing pardons. Apparently, Nancy nuked the thing.
FP: What resistance did they meet outside the White House? Who were the dupes that helped the Soviet position and hurt the Reagan-Clark objective?
Kengor: There were lots of dupes, especially among the nuclear freezers, which included a bunch of liberal Catholic bishops who didn’t understand the Reagan policy of peace through strength. They didn’t realize that Reagan and Clark were looking to build up in order to build down. Clark, a devout Catholic who as a young man attended seminary and considered the priesthood, was the point man in dealing with the bishops, and handled them extremely effectively, as the New York Times documented.
The Reagan administration was engaged in what Clark rightly called a “dog fight” to get the MX Missile program funded. The left misrepresented the program and its intentions. One example we share in the book are the shameless packages of letters sent to Reagan by leftist elementary-school teachers who organized their students into writing the president telling him that he was a “bad boy” for “favoring” nuclear war. We quote letters forwarded to the president by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) from sixth-graders at Wellesley Middle School in Wellesley , Massachusetts . “Are you trying to ruin the world by bombs?” wrote one brainwashed little girl. “Who cares if Russia keeps making bombs, they’ll stop if we make the first move.”
FP: What about the leaks? Who were the leakers?
Kengor: The Reagan administration was besieged by the unauthorized release of information to the press by anonymous sources inside the White House—i.e., by leaks. We today have no appreciation of the enormity of this problem, which Reagan himself called a “virtual hemorrhage of leaks in the national security area,” that had “hampered formulation of foreign and defense policy.” Clark, Reagan, and others found that this was not only, in their minds, undermining administration policy, but had even jeopardized the safety of certain officials traveling abroad.
After a year of this, Reagan had enough. This is one of the primary reasons he brought Bill Clark to the NSC at the start of 1982—to bring in his trouble-shooter to try to get a handle on this problem. Reagan and Clark publicly stated that “all legal methods” would be used to investigate suspected leakers.
It is no secret, and was widely reported, that Jim Baker and David Gergen were believed to be the biggest leakers in Washington. Naturally, given Clark’s mandate to stop the problem, he became their opponent. The leakers flipped their lids when it was reported that Clark and Reagan were considering the use of lie detectors.
The press, naturally, became obsessed with the issue. One of my favorite newspaper articles from this episode was a November 24, 1983 New York Times story on the investigation, which itself was the product of leakers. You could tell from the story that the leakers seemed to be leaking information on the investigation of leaking information. It was absurd.
Clark detested the practice of leaking, which he viewed as a sign of poor character and judgment. He believed that men of integrity should be able to disagree openly and then shake hands and move on.
FP: How did Clark ensure that SDI was not stopped by White House moderates?
Kengor: Leaking was a central concern in planning the announcement of SDI, which Reagan announced on national television on March 23, 1983. Clark ensured that only those who really needed to know about SDI knew ahead of time. If Clark hadn’t restricted the circle, he feared one of the pragmatists might have tried to torpedo the idea by leaking it to the Washington Post beforehand—“Hey, listen to this hair-brained idea about to be announced by the crazy old fool!”
Of course, once the announcement was out, one of the leakers leaked to the New York Times that Clark was concealing information on SDI, including from Congress. This leaked story ran in the March 31, 1983 edition.
Bill Clark ensured that SDI got out of the gate, circumventing the leakers. Good thing—as Genrikh Trofimenko, the director of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, put it: “ninety-nine percent of all Russians believe that Reagan won the Cold War because of [his] insistence on SDI.” If not for Bill Clark, Ronald Reagan might not have been able to lift his SDI vision off the ground, certainly not as smoothly.
FP: So what are the major revelations or new information in the book?
Kengor: Really, basically the entire book is new. It is worth your time for the chapter on Suriname alone (chapter 10). Also worth the pricetag is the 1982 case of Reagan threatening to shoot down Soviet MiGs in Nicaragua, which was communicated to the Soviets, and the heretofore unreported French offer in 1981 to assassinate Moammar Kaddafi.
Another unrecorded account is how Reagan asked Clark to go to China to advise on whether the United States should get involved in a civil engineering project known as Three Gorges Dam. Clark did so, and reported that we should stay out of it. As usual, Reagan took Clark’s advice. Good move!
Finally, we report brand new information on Clark’s secret meeting with Saddam Hussein in January 1986. Clark confirmed in this book that we did not arm Saddam Hussein, especially with WMDs or WMD technology, despite what the moonbat left has recklessly alleged.
FP: Why did Clark never write memoirs? Why did this book take so long to happen?
Kengor: His humility. He didn’t want to talk about himself. He is a private man. Lou Cannon said of Clark : “He did more for Reagan and the conservative cause while calling less attention to himself than anyone else I know.”
Moreover, he couldn’t fathom that outside of the Reagan component, no one would be interested in his personal story, especially the spiritual aspect. How wrong he was: This was a young man in California, born to a family of sheriffs and lawmen who settled the West, who worked the ranches and vistas of California as a boy, who connected to God through animals and nature, like Saint Francis, his favorite saint. After reading the likes of Bishop Fulton Sheen and all those 1930s Catholic encyclicals that excoriated atheistic communism, Clark attended seminary briefly in 1950. He left for a number of reasons, including his conviction he could better fight communism outside the seminary. A rendezvous with Ronald Reagan awaited, and the rest is history.
Everyone pushed Clark to write memoirs. I managed to earn his trust through my books on Reagan. Once others realized I had his trust, they pushed me to push him to agree to let me write his biography. The only way I ultimately prevailed was by appealing to his sense of duty to Ronald Reagan and history. He knew things no one else knew. He knew it was crucial to get these things on the record, and with accuracy. Even then, I can’t say I ever convinced him. He doesn’t like the attention.
FP: Where is Clark today?
Kengor: He is 76 years old, and lives out his final days on his ranch in Paso Robles, California, near the gorgeous chapel he built on his property. He struggles with Parkinson’s disease.
FP: How do you think Reagan and Clark would deal with the Islamist threat today if they were in the White House?
Kengor: Clark is adamant about staying away from drawing parallels there. He says that he and Reagan were focused on defeating the last great “ism”—atheistic Soviet communism. This enemy is much different, even if alike in certain respects.
That said, he would note that one of the chief reasons why Ronald Reagan wanted a missile-defense system was his fear of a nuclear missile launched by what Reagan called a “Middle East madman.” Remember that one of the primary reasons why Reagan refused to drop SDI, even after Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik offered to scrap the entire Soviet missile arsenal, is because Reagan knew that there would never be a world without nuclear weapons or a nuclear threat. There was also the frightening specter of nuclear-armed Islamist lunatics in the Middle East.
FP: Overall what was Clark ’s greatest achievement? And what was his strongest asset in terms of his character?
Kengor: Winning the Cold War was his greatest achievement. No question. His strongest asset was his character. Jean Kirkpatrick, who was not one for effusive, unnecessary praise, said in 1983 that Clark “fulfills the stereotype of the strong, silent type. He’s decent, upright, honest, forthright and serious.” Edmund Morris says the same thing. Those are two very cynical sources, not easy to impress.
It’s quite a challenge for a biographer to write about someone who everyone liked as a person, and who everyone agrees was extremely influential, impressive, but unheralded. As a biographer, it is heard to avoid hagiography. Clark , however, was all of those things—but certainly no saint, as he is quick to note.
He really does have the persona of the Hollywood cowboys of the Old West—right out of the movies. Not to be melodramatic, but he is that guy in the white hat who at the end of the film, after taking out the bad guys and saying goodbye to the pretty girl, gets on his horse, turns his back to the camera, and slowly and silently rides off into the sunset, where he is never heard from again.
FP: Paul Kengor, thank you for joining us.
Kengor: It is my pleasure, Jamie. Keep up the great work.
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