December 30, 2007
Ronald Reagan's Top HandBy Herbert E. Meyer
Very few people get to be President, but each time we elect a president about 3,000 men and women get the privilege of serving in that administration. Most do a decent job and then move on with their careers. Some become famous in their own right, and themselves become the subject of biographies.
But in every administration there are one or two aides who deserve their own biographies because of the superb jobs they did -- but rarely get them because they worked quietly and never became sufficiently famous to attract the biographers or the reading public. That's a shame, because sometimes we can learn as much from studying the lives of these aides as we can learn from studying the lives of the leaders they served.
The Judge, by Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner, is an astute, uncommonly affectionate biography of perhaps the most modest, self-effacing and effective aide that any of our presidents has been lucky enough to have. He is William P. Clark -- "The Judge" to everyone who dealt with him in the Reagan administration. Formerly a justice of the California Supreme Court, he served President Reagan as Deputy Secretary of State, then as national security adviser, and finally as Secretary of the Interior. And he succeeded brilliantly in all three jobs, playing a key role in undermining the Soviet Union and then cleaning up the political mess left by his predecessor at the Interior Department.
When President-elect Reagan named Clark to the number-two slot at the State Department, Washington insiders were aghast. As Clark himself had reminded Reagan, "I know nothing about foreign policy or foreign affairs." But, as Reagan replied, "Bill, that's exactly why I want you there. I have all the "experts" I need." Reagan wanted his own man at State, both to keep an eye on the "experts" and, more importantly, to assure that State did what the President wanted State to do, rather than what the "experts" thought best.
Al Haig Didn't Get It
The new Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, never quite grasped this point. In his first meeting with Clark, Haig told the novice diplomat how things would work: "You, Bill, are going to run the building. I'm going to run the world." Well, no. If anyone was going to "run the world" it would be the President, with Haig's help. This is precisely why he sent Clark to State -- and why Al Haig was out of his job two years later. Kengor and Doerner provide some new details about those tumultuous years that most historians have missed, including an episode in which the intelligence chief of France -- whose elegant and sophisticated elites loved to dismiss Reagan as a gun-toting cowboy -- came to Washington to ask for American help in assassinating Libya's Moammar Kaddafi. (The gun-toting cowboy declined the French request.)After less than a year at State, Reagan named Clark to succeed Richard Allen as national security adviser. And it was here that Clark made his greatest contribution, by guiding forward, step-by-step, President Reagan's strategy for ending the Cold War peacefully. Clark and his team produced a series of National Security Decision Directives -- of which the most famous is NSSD 75, through which it became our country's official policy:
Or, as the President liked to put it, "We win, they lose."
Kengor and Doerner devote several chapters to outlining how the Judge worked with the Reagan team -- Cap Weinberger at the Pentagon, George Shultz at State, Bill Casey at the CIA and Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the UN, to turn the plan into reality. While much of this story has been told elsewhere -- including by Kengor himself, in his own superb biography of President Reagan -- this book discloses some new details, especially about Clark's secret meetings with Pope John Paul II. (And if you've forgotten about the mess in Suriname -- or if you've never heard of Suriname -- you'll learn about an unheralded Reagan success, led by Clark, to throw Fidel Castro's rear end out of this strategically located country.)
When the President announced in October 1983 that he was naming Clark to succeed the embattled James Watt at the Interior Department, Clark was ready for a change. He was exhausted -- not merely by the work itself, but by the endless infighting generated mostly by James Baker, who at this time was the White House chief-of-staff. Moreover, Clark felt that he had done what he had set out to do as national security advisor, and he didn't like the idea of hanging around once he had accomplished his objective. Kengor and Doerner provide a solid account of how Clark turned things around in his new job -- which, as a life-long outdoorsman, he loved -- but of course to Cold Warriors these chapters hold less interest.
What really elevates The Judge to the ranks of must-read biographies are the several chapters that Kengor and Doerner devote to Clark's personal life, both before and after the years with Reagan.
Bill Clark is the sort of man who keeps civilization moving forward -- honest, decent, deeply religious and utterly devoted to his family. Born into an old California family whose Catholic faith guided their lives, after high school Clark found himself at Stanford University and very much at sea. He dropped out after his freshman year to enroll in a seminary in upstate New York, thinking that the priesthood might be for him. It wasn't, so he dropped out of the seminary and returned to Stanford. Then he dropped out of Stanford a second time and enrolled in the pre-law program at the University of Santa Clara. When he'd accumulated enough pre-law credits he got himself admitted to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Then he got drafted, dropped out of law school, and found himself in an army counter-intelligence unit in Germany. That's where he met and then married Joan Brauner, an Austrian who had fled the Soviet occupation of her country and was working as a secretary at Clark's base. After Clark was discharged the couple settled back in California, where Clark re-enrolled in law school. Under financial pressure to support his growing family, he dropped out yet again. But he'd accumulated enough credits to take the California bar exam -- which he passed on his second try. (So he wound up on the California Supreme Court without ever graduating from college, or from law school.)
Reagan's First Call
In 1964 Clark, by this time running a small law firm in Oxnard, took his wife to a Goldwater rally in Los Angeles at which Ronald Reagan was speaking. (Clark insists he'd never even seen a Reagan movie before then; since the man is incapable of telling a lie, this may actually be true.) They came away impressed. One year later Reagan, now starting to get involved in California politics and lining up future supporters, telephoned Clark and urged him to run for the state assembly. Clark declined, but a year after that, when Reagan ran for governor, he called Clark again and asked him to serve as chairman of his Ventura County campaign. Clark accepted, and a life-long partnership was launched that took both men to Sacramento and then on to Washington.
When Clark resigned as Secretary of the Interior and came home to California, he cheerfully resumed his life as a lawyer-rancher. But more than once the President reached out to his former aide for help, to serve on some commission or to travel overseas with private messages to world leaders who understood that meeting with Clark was just one step short of meeting with the President himself.
No one who knew Clark will be surprised to learn that he's built a chapel on his ranch, and that he's made it available to people in his community of all faiths. In addition to the Sunday Catholic masses, there are Protestant services on Saturdays, and on Fridays evenings Bible study and prayer services in Spanish. Each year around Christmas the chapel hosts a Mormon choir, and each summer it helps host the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival.
Read The Judge and you will be riveted by the life story of a man who has succeeded at virtually everything he set out to do by understanding that competence is more important than ambition, that judgment is more valuable than education, and that character is worth more than personality.
Like every human being, Bill Clark is unique. But our country is filled with men and women with his qualities. Let's hope that whomever becomes our next president has the good sense to find one.