The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand. Author: Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner. Publisher: Ignatius Press, 2014
As we are I beginning yet another the long campaign for the presidency many people are nostalgically remembering the presidency of Ronald Reagan, already generally regarded as one of the most successful in history. Ignatius Press of San Francisco (Pope Benedict XVI's U.S. publisher) has issued a book that transports us to those halcyon days of a conservative revolution, a Cold War that was heated only to result in the fall of the Iron Curtain, up-to-then unprecedented economic prosperity—and a scandal known as Iran-Contra. The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand is coauthored by Paul Kengor, a professor at Grove City College with a strong interest in conservative politics and religion, and Patricia Clark Doerner, a college professor and daughter of Judge Clark who provides many of the details of the Judge's personal history.
The key to understanding this book is the introduction, which also explains why we have heard so little of this truly remarkable man since his departure from Washington. Edmund Morris recorded that he was "so private, quiet and unflamboyant that Defense Secretary and long-time aide Cap Weinberger said, ‘he was one of the most influential people in Washington, enormously important to Reagan's goals and success, as governor and then as president, but you'd never hear that from Bill or even know it in the way he acted.'"
Simply put, Judge Clark was not interested in promoting himself but rather in serving the citizens of the United States and the Reagan presidency. When he was no longer needed, he returned to California and dedicated himself to his family, his ranch, and philanthropic causes, including many charitable and educational philanthropies related to the Catholic Church. There was no thought of remaining inside the Beltway to cash in as a lobbyist. At the same time, the Judge maintained his Washington contacts and has made himself available for counsel as necessary.
The early chapters are dedicated to his ancestry and early life. On his father's side, the Judge came from Irish-Catholic ancestors who took part in the massive mid-19th century immigration set off by the Irish potato famine. After some decades in Wisconsin, the family eventually crossed the country to California, where the Judge's grandfather, Robert Emmett Clark, settled in Ventura County. Bob Clark served as a lawman in the still-wild West for 40 years, compiling a colorful but honorable record that inspired a young boy named Ronald Reagan. In Dixon, Illinois, in 1922, the 11-year-old was reading a book that recounted the adventures of Sheriff Clark and told his mother "he wanted to be like that man, like Fair Play Bob." The Judge and the governor would later become both friends and partners in politics and governance.
Justice Clark grew up on the family ranch with parents who showed a strong interest in local government and community activism. He enjoyed ranch life, hunting, and one summer patrolling on horseback 60,000 acres that his father leased. At his Catholic high school, where he played football and was named salutatorian of his class, he received a strong Catholic formation that formed the bedrock of his deep piety and strong ethics. He spent a short time in the seminary, but soon discerned that he was called to live out his faith as a married man. After passing the bar, he specialized in a real estate practice combined with his own ranching interests.
In the 1960s, Judge Clark became acquainted with California gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan and struck up a friendship with him that evolved into a political relationship as Clark became part of the new governor's inner advisory council. Later Reagan appointed him to the California Supreme Court, where Judge Clark wrote many minority opinions in response to an increasingly liberal judiciary.
After the 1980 election, the Judge followed Reagan to the White House, taking on positions as chief of staff, national security adviser, and finally secretary of the interior. He was involved in all of the important decisions of the Reagan administration's first term, particularly those dealing with national security and the conduct of the red-hot Cold War. Against considerable internal opposition, Clark backed Reagan's determination to win the Cold War by any legitimate and moral means.
The book gives dispassionate insights into the various rivalries that are inevitable at such high levels of power, with Clark often acting as mediator and broker and sometimes being a party to these rivalries. To some, Reagan's general unwillingness to chastise or remove some his bickering advisers and aides was seen as a weakness; however, his approach was perhaps not much different from Lincoln's handling of his own "Team of Rivals" during the Civil War. Clark was also fortunate in being largely out of the circle of the Iran-Contra debacle that marked the low point of Reagan's second term. Observers quoted in this book believe that if Clark had been in control, the whole Iran-Contra mess would never have happened.
(Chapel built by Judge Clark in Paso Robles CA)
Clark continued intermittently advising Reagan and took on various diplomatic missions for him, but over the last two decades he has largely limited his activities to his family, ranching, and private philanthropy, all very much in the context of his Catholic faith. Although this book will not be the last biography of a major Reagan-era political player, no other adviser was as close to Reagan in temperament, faith, and political philosophy—and no one was a closer friend to this famously distant man. Some of the candid photos of the two together in the book express their relationship better than words.
Finally, the Judge was the most self-effacing and agreeable of Reagan's advisers. It's difficult to come up with any other Reaganaut of whom former President Jimmy Carter could say, "Under somewhat difficult circumstances, Bill Clark knew how to make friends—even with Democrats. I am proud to have been one of them. He died last year in his native California mourned and admired by many. Where will we find his like?
Rev. C. John McCloskey, III STD is a Catholic priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei. He currently is Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, First Things, and other journals.