The administration of Ronald Reagan was like a classic American western movie. The good guys were gentle, but purposeful and strong, cowboys turned politicians.
The main parts were played by Ronald Reagan and his faithful trail companion, Judge William Clark. Rather like a Clint Eastwood production in which you remember the lead, but the other actors names escape your memory, we all remember Ronald Reagan, but only a few are aware that a man still amongst us, Bill Clark, played the role of top hand in almost every political situation in which Reagan was the star.
They rode horses together, wore boots often and were attached to the California West. The open country of the coastal mountain areas molded their individual spirits. When Bill Clark came to Washington, he brought his horse along so that he could take morning rides through Rock Creek Park.
When Reagan was governor, Bill Clark was the governor's main representative in all matters of importance.
When Reagan was President, Clark was shuttled in and out of the various hot spots inside and out-side the administration. At the State Department, he served as an alter-ego to Alexander Haig, a man whose ego might have crowded a lesser man out.
Clark was close to defense matters through his time as National Security Adviser, and he has always been close to the American land, so his stint as secretary of the Interior can be seen for what it was: a reward for his previous service. But reward, or not, he managed to put his special stamp upon the department even in his relatively short stay there from late 1983 to early 1985.
There is now a new biography about Bill Clark, "The Judge: William P. Clark Ronald Reagan's Top Hand," co-authored by Paul Kengor and Patricia Doerner. It is a detailed look at this insightful man whose California roots go back to well before the Gold Rush. [Editor's Note: Get Paul Kengor's book, "The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand" — go here now.]
His paternal grandfather was named for Irish patriot Robert Emmet: He was a rancher and a lawman in Ventura County and took great pride in telling his associates that he was born in Fair Play, Wis., because "fair play" was a motto for how he lived his life.
Bill Clark Jr., born Oct. 23, 1931, grew up in a rancher's household with a father who eventually became sheriff of Oxnard, Calif., at a time when corruption and bribery were on the rise and a great deal of the town's police force were "on the take" from a known gangster with New York ties. Clark's dad held firm and brought the criminals to justice. Basically, he almost single-handedly cleaned up the town.
In short, morality, fair play, and an ability to step up to the bad boys of the frontier West were in the genetics of the Clarks, and Bill Jr. absorbed a healthy dose of all three traits.
Having to work on the ranch all day, Clark did not have much time for school. Nevertheless, he did attend a rigorous prep school and studied for a year at Stanford, which he really did not take to, and then, by his own choice, at a seminary in upstate New York.
He acquired the ability to be silent, as it was mandatory for most of every day he was there. He read many religious tracts and contemplated his own existence. Through this process, he acquired a deep sense of humility about himself and about humanity. Back in Ventura County in 1955, he determined he would become a lawyer.
Money and time continued to be a problem for young Clark, but he eventually passed the California bar exam in 1958, even though he did not stay at school long enough to qualify for a law school degree. But he had done what he needed to do to become a member of the legal establishment and thus a viable member of future governmental administrations.
In every way, he was a self-made man. He started his own small practice in Oxnard, taking cases from many of the poor and indigent of the area. He built up a following and special friendships with people from all levels of the local society.
When his father retired from law enforcement, the two combined their talents with both the law practice and ranching and ranch real-estate. The businesses thrived.
Authors Kengor and Doerner have done a very thorough job of describing Bill Clark's life in terms of the actual events that shaped his life. More, however, they have waded in quite deep to the inner workings of the Reagan Administration.
Within those inner workings were really two groups with radically different philosophies at play.
On the one hand was the group that felt that Reagan was a treasure but at the same time felt he should be simply a figurehead around which real power evolved. In their minds, they were the real decision makers and the power behind, if not in front, of the presidency.
The other group comprised such figures as Judge Clark, my father, Cap Weinberger, Lynn Nofziger and former-Attorney General Ed Meese.
They felt that Reagan should be left alone to be Reagan and that his voice should not be muffled, controlled or "managed."
The book follows Judge Clark in his role as a Reagan for governor campaign county chairman, then into his role as a cabinet secretary for the new California governor in 1966. Reagan and Clark became quite close chiefly because they trusted each other as gentlemen ranchers and as Californians on the edge of a new era of Western and Pacific-Rim prominence.
For Judge Clark, Ronald Reagan was "a man of truth and integrity . . . whose philosophy made sense." He and Reagan became extremely close in Sacramento. Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer and long-rime California political reporter, says Clark and Reagan "were like brothers."
Fighting From the Beach
The Judge became a judge in January 1969 when Gov. Reagan appointed him to a California court seat in San Luis Obispo, only 40 miles from Clark's house. The appointment was not without a lot of controversy, mostly about Clark's not being qualified and being only a political "hack." But Reagan stuck to his guns and Bill Clark became Judge Clark as he would mostly be called and remembered for the rest of his governmental days.
In 1971, he was elevated to the bench of the state court of appeals in Los Angeles, and in 1973, Reagan appointed Judge Clark to the California Supreme Court as an associate justice. That did not sit well with the liberal elements in California that were in a basic majority, and Clark barely won confirmation by a two-to-one vote of the Judicial Commission.
Clark continued to fight the good fight of conservatives vs. liberals once on the California bench, writing hundreds of minority opinions and occasionally winning over other justices to be the majority on at least a few issues of importance.
This biography then swings into the Reagan presidential campaign and the administrations themselves. There is so much material involved in this era that it would be impossible in a review to cover it all.
What does shine through, though, is that Clark and the other Californians serving Ronald Reagan, especially my father, Meese, Nofziger and Energy Secretary John Harrington, had a mission to make America a better place, a stronger place with a solid defense and a determination to defeat communism and totalitarian regimes round the globe so that peace and prosperity might reign for the masses.
They came to serve Ronald Reagan's agenda but not to isolate or reduce in stature Reagan's own beliefs and wishes. At first, Clark, who would serve as deputy secretary of State, National Security adviser and secretary of the Interior, was a favorite of Nancy Reagan. Somewhere along the line though, Clark and the other Californians fell out of favor with Nancy. Fortunately, by this time in the mid-1980s, most of the important work of the administration had been accomplished.
Helene Von Damm. Ronald Reagan's principal secretary both in Sacramento and Washington, is quoted in the Clark biography: "I think it is quite clear as to the reason why all the Californians, except Mike Deaver, fell out of favor with Nancy . . . The Californians, like Ronald Reagan, shared a conservative philosophy, a mission and goals to meet, even if the press was bad in response. They accepted bad press without retreating. Nancy (and Mike, the administration's image man) did not . . . She was concerned only with her husband's place in history. That was her worry, and I guess, her only mission, and she was very sensitive to bad press . . . When the press suggested Bill Clark was in charge . . . that was it, as far as Mrs. Reagan was concerned."
Eventually, time has healed old wounds, and Bill Clark and Nancy are now frequently in touch with one another.
Lyn Nofziger, the late crusty Californian, said of the Reagan era, of which he was an integral part: "Ronald Reagan's greatest failure was trusting people he should not have trusted . . . he always thought if people worked for him, they would be loyal to him, but there were people who were more loyal to themselves than to Ronald Reagan."
This biography is about one man who was more loyal to Ronald Reagan then to even himself. He was truly an inner protector of Ronald Reagan, a moral man, a thoughtful soul and one of whom this country should be most proud.
Likewise, when some were trying to tear down what Reagan was all about, when others worried about his "image," Ronald Reagan caned right along with what he knew to be correct, and he never once lost faith in the man who aided him for many years: Judge William Clark.
The Judge is elderly now and mostly retired, living on his ranch with his life-time companion and wife, Joan. I have had the honor of talking with him a few times this year, and though he has the debilitating Parkinson's disease which ailed his father as well, he is always quiet and thoughtful and with a sunny Californian's disposition that serves him as well now as it once served one of America's finest Presidents.
[Editor's Note: Get Paul Kengor's book, "The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand" — go here now.]
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This review first appeared in the newspaper Human Events.
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