On Saturday, we lost a truly great American. The man Ronald Reagan rightly thought of as his top hand, William P. Clark, finally — to use his old friend and boss’ oft-quoted phrase — “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
Judge Clark, as he was universally known, thanks to his time as a senior jurist in California, was quite simply the finest human being I have ever had the privilege to know. He was also one of the most consequential.
Of course, one would scarcely know that about the Judge. His Coolidgesque taciturnity and the authentically modest demeanor of a horseman who infinitely preferred riding the range to the ways of Washington ensured that too few knew during Bill’s life about his indispensable role at a critical moment in the history of our nation and, indeed, the world.
The egregious underestimating of the Judge began at the very outset of the Reagan presidency, when Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware, used a hearing on Bill Clark’s nomination to become the deputy secretary of state to ridicule and demean him. Historian and biographer extraordinaire Paul Kengor described the moment: “Reagan had just succeeded in convincing Clark to give up his California Supreme Court seat — to which Governor Reagan had appointed him — to help him come to Washington to run the State Department. Reagan wanted an “America Desk” at State, someone loyal who could ensure the department would be an asset, not a liability. He needed a second-in-command there to help keep an eye on Secretary of State Al Haig. He wanted someone who was not known as a foreign-policy expert, but was a sure thing to get things done, to keep order, and to truly run the department. He knew he could trust Clark completely.”
In one of Mr. Biden’s most despicable performances (which is saying something), he proceeded to ask the Judge to identify the names of prime ministers of various sub-Saharan African nations and other “gotcha” questions, all the while professing discomfort at having to engage in such a line of inquiry. His intention was as transparent as it was successful: The man who is now vice president of the United States sought to neutralize Reagan’s right-hand man before he even took up his duties in Foggy Bottom, making him appear not just unqualified for the job, but in the mold of his boss — whom another prominent leftist, Clark Clifford, once notoriously derided as “an amiable dunce.” (Mr. Kengor recounts that the judge told him years later that Mr. Biden approached him after the hearing and off-camera jocularly assured the witness that he didn’t know the answers, either.)
Fortunately, the Judge’s time trying to man the “America desk” at State was short-lived. By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, Bill Clark had been summoned to the White House, where he became for a short but epochal period the president’s national security adviser. The rest, as they say, is history.
With a series of National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs) prepared under the Judge’s supervision by Reagan’s National Security Council staff — several of which were not just highly classified, but extremely closely held — the two men charted the strategy that would destroy the Soviet Union and free hundreds of millions enslaved under its repressive communist ideology.
Those inclined to minimize the significance of the role played by the Reagan-Clark team would have us believe that the USSR fell because of its own internal contradictions, the inefficiencies of the communist economic model, its excessive spending on military hardware, etc. Nonsense.
The Soviet Union is no more, primarily because Ronald Reagan, Bill Clark and an incredible cast of supporting characters — including Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul, Ed Meese, Cap Weinberger, Bill Casey, Jeanne Kirkpatrick and less well-known Clark subordinates like Roger Robinson — successfully executed the plan laid out in NSDD 75 and its economic precursor, NSDD 66. By so doing, they set in motion the inexorable cutting off of Western political, economic, financial and technological life-support to the Kremlin and global resistance to its geopolitical and military predations that, over time, bankrupted and ultimately took down the “evil empire.”
As important as the Judge’s role was in midwifing this strategy was what he did to prevent it from being strangled in the crib by those in allied capitals, in the business community and even inside Reagan’s own Cabinet who opposed it nearly as strenuously as did the Soviets. But for the steady, principled and visionary man at the president’s side, the Gipper’s greatest legacy may never have materialized.
The Judge will be remembered by untold numbers whose lives he directly touched for his quiet and self-effacing dignity, for his deep religious faith and for his tireless service to his community. Bill Clark will live on in the hearts of all those who love freedom and who enjoy it today, thanks to Ronald Reagan and his largely unsung, but indispensable top hand.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. was an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. He is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program “Secure Freedom Radio.”