With the passing last week of William P. Clark came acknowledgments of his amazing accomplishments as President Reagan’s “top hand” in the White House, at the State Department, and as secretary of the Interior. Properly, much attention focuses on Mr. Clark’s role in formulating, developing and implementing Reagan’s plan regarding the Soviet Union (“We win, and they lose.”), which led to America’s victory in the Cold War.
What is not well known, however, is the degree to which Reagan was involved in energy, natural resources and environmental policy at the Interior Department, the reason Reagan selected Mr. Clark to replace James Watt when Mr. Watt resigned, and the importance Mr. Clark attributed to continuing Mr. Watt’s policies. In sum, analogous to Reagan’s plan to “transcend” communism, Reagan intended to transcend those partisan opponents he called “environmental extremists” and “modern-day Luddites.”
Reagan was the most knowledgeable president in history regarding energy, natural resources and environmental issues, given his experience as governor of California — half of which is owned by the federal government — and his years researching, writing and delivering radio addresses on those topics. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan made clear his intention to develop the energy and minerals beneath the third of the country owned by the federal government and the billion acres off its shores. So insistent was Reagan that when Mr. Watt sought to back down regarding one controversial oil and gas lease in Wyoming, Reagan told him, “Jim, if you do not do it, who will? If not there, where will we drill?”
When Mr. Watt resigned as a result of what Reagan called “a 2-year lynching,” Reagan enlisted his top hand to take over at Interior. Those who believed in letting Reagan be Reagan were not surprised. Mr. Clark often called Mr. Watt at the president’s request after a nasty bit of media coverage to assure him he was on the right path. Environmental extremists knew nothing of this, but still they blasted Mr. Clark for his knowledge, intelligence and conservative views. After Mr. Clark’s confirmation, Reagan took to the radio praising Mr. Watt, promoting the Reagan record on the environment, and presenting Mr. Clark.
Mr. Clark did not disappoint. With his judicial temperament, deferential demeanor and courtly manner he, in Reagan’s words, “place[ed] some oil on [the] water.” He called for “convergence” in discussing public policy, but cautioned, “It takes two or more to converge.” Mr. Clark assured Mr. Watt’s appointees that he would not reverse Mr. Watt’s policies; after all, they were Reagan’s policies. Finally, Mr. Clark accomplished what Mr. Watt could not; with the president’s ear, he prevailed on the financing of western water projects, fees for grazing on federal lands, and the finality of state water law in wilderness areas. Mr. Clark did not lack for passion. Objecting to Congress’ closure of vast areas to the search for oil and gas he declared, “If a foreign power had managed to do to us what we have done to ourselves, to shape our energy policy so disastrously, we would call it an act of war.”
In November 1984, Mr. Clark told Reagan he was going home, and in a handwritten, five-page, six-point letter, wrote as item No. 1: “The policies begun by Jim Watt are going well, and I hope to make them your quiet legacy.” Mr. Clark, however, was not finished. He knew that Donald Hodel, Reagan’s energy secretary and Mr. Watt’s former deputy, would pursue Reagan’s policies. Therefore, he persuaded Reagan to nominate Mr. Hodel and enlisted Nancy Reagan to urge the reluctant Mr. Hodel to take the job. Only then did Mr. Clark ride off into the sunset.
If this tribute to Mr. Clark sounds more of an ode to Reagan, it is as the judge would want it. After all, unique among most who travel to Washington, Mr. Clark rode for the brand of the “sagebrush rebel,” Ronald Reagan.
William Perry Pendley, an attorney, is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver and author of “Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle With Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today” (Regnery, 2013).