William P. Clark's hand in history

Shandon's William Clark, who went from small-town judge to Reagan's most trusted adviser, looks back on a career dedicated to diplomacy

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJanuary 25, 2009 

In this undated file photo, Ronald Reagan is shown with Shandon rancher William Clark.


When he served as President Reagan's national security adviser, William Clark regularly met with the three previous presidents at their homes, soliciting their input on the day's biggest issues.

"When I visited them, I left a briefing book with them, covering their main interests, " said Clark, who has maintained his residence in Shandon since the 1960s. "With President Nixon, of course, it was the East-West relationships, particularly with the Soviet Union. With President Carter, it was the Middle East. And with President Ford, it was primarily domestic issues."

As President Barack Obama's term begins, Clark said it's important for the new leader to learn from the past — particularly from those who lived it. Because the issues don't change that much, he said, institutional memory can be instrumental in guiding new policy choices.

"While I did not always agree with (former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger's views on national security, I had a close relationship with him and would take his call any time of the day or night, " Clark said. "Recognizing that the Reagan administration was serving at the height of the Cold War, I would get his opinions as well as other predecessors in national security — at the Pentagon, State Department and, of course, the White House."

The Obama Administration probably won't seek Clark's input, as he has been out of politics for more than 20 years. (He jokingly calls himself a Formerly Important Person.) But his experiences offer a glimpse into what the new presidency might expect. And they show how life has changed since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House.

"There was a lack of contentiousness between the two political parties that I'm afraid does not exist today, " Clark said. "That's one of my worries about making government work — there seems to be far less camaraderie now than we've known in the past."

A skilled mediator

For Clark, a man known as a mediator, camaraderie was always important. That's what helped him during his meetings with past presidents, members of Congress and world leaders such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Throughout his career, he's gotten along well with the people he's had to deal with — both people on his side of the issues as well as opponents, " said Edwin Meese, Reagan's former counselor (the lead adviser on policy) and U. S. attorney general.

His ability to mediate, Clark says, goes back to his days as a judge — a career that began in San Luis Obispo in 1969.

The son of a deputy sheriff and rancher, Clark grew up in Ventura County and briefly studied at seminary before opting for law school. Though he never finished his law degree, he passed the bar and eventually practiced law. When Ronald Reagan ran for governor, Clark — who had previously met Reagan at a Barry Goldwater rally — served as his chairman for Ventura County, starting a longtime friendship.

"They were really two peas in a pod, " said Paul Kengor, who co-authored the biography "The Judge" with Clark's cousin, Patricia Clark Doerner. "They were kindred souls."

Clark having risen to Reagan's No. 2 person in the California governor's office, Reagan asked him to run for lieutenant governor. Instead, Clark accepted a judgeship with the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, flying daily from his Shandon home to Cal Poly, where a bailiff picked him up. Eventually, Clark was appointed to the California Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court. (Reagan came to San Luis Obispo for the swearing-in ceremony.)

Twelve years later, Reagan — then president — tapped Clark to go to Washington, which he did first as deputy secretary of state. Though reluctant to be in Washington, Clark rose through the ranks. And with each promotion, he was criticized for being unqualified. Some foreign papers called him harsh names, like "nitwit" and "ignoramus."

"(The media) always underestimated the two of them, " Kengor said. "They always questioned their education, and they always questioned their intelligence."

Clark said the negative press didn't bother him or the president.

"Ronald Reagan was known for saying, 'Let's forget the polls, '" he said, noting that media criticism didn't influence Reagan's decisions.

While Clark continued to rise through the ranks — eventually earning media praise at each stop — he turned down offers to take on many key roles, including the head of the CIA and a spot on the U. S. Supreme Court. Clark's goal, Kengor said, was always to help on a temporary basis.

"He could still be sitting on the Supreme Court today, " Kengor said.

When Reagan first took office, Clark said, the economy — like now — was a priority. The Cold War, with its threat of nuclear warfare, also weighed heavily. (According to "The Judge, " the Soviets once had missiles pointed at Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara.) As national security adviser, Clark was a key player in Reagan's philosophy of "peace through strength."

While Obama has been criticized for his willingness to talk to enemies, Reagan — despite his outward toughness toward the Soviets — actively sought to engage Soviet leaders.

"The president said he would get more done with the Soviet Union if the leaders would stop dying on him, " Clark said.

Reagan's confidant

Eventually, Clark became Reagan's closest adviser, leading Time magazine to declare him "the second most powerful man in the White House" in 1983.

Clark waves off that notion. But, according to "The Judge, " his close relationship with Reagan — the two even prayed together — led to jealousy among other cabinet members.

"They had very similar ideas about what ought to be done, " said Meese, who still occasionally visits Clark in Shandon. "And they also knew and understood one another very well, having worked together back in the California days."

While the president had an ear for everyone, Clark said, input — whether from world leaders or cabinet members — often went through him first.

"The president always wanted to hear all views," Clark said. "But he didn't have time to touch base with everyone on every issue. So he depended on me to have what he called the Roundtable Discussion regularly so that everyone's view was known by him before he had to make a particular decision."

In time, the administration would become known for infighting, particularly among key members such as Chief of Staff James Baker and Secretary of State Al Haig. But Meese and Clark characterize it as healthy disagreements.

"Obviously, among a lot of strong people, you have different opinions and different approaches to things, " Meese said. "So I would think it was more along the lines of trying to bring people into agreement where it was possible or to have an agreed-upon set of issues or options for the president."

Still, high-profile stories on Clark in The New York Times and Time (where he was on the cover) led to further jealousy. And the president's wife, Nancy, began to suspect Clark was steering her husband toward a hard line against the Soviets.

Ironically, Kengor said, Clark could have saved Nancy Reagan some distress later — when her husband's second term was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal.

"Some people think that if (Clark) had stayed and accepted certain positions, Iran-Contra would have never happened, " Kengor said. "He's a law and order guy — that's where he comes from."

Spirit of bipartisanship

When Clark left his national security post — a move Nancy Reagan pushed for — he took a post as secretary of the interior, where his predecessor, James Watt, had been an unpopular department head. Before his confirmation hearings, former President Jimmy Carter — a Democrat — offered to testify on his behalf.

It's that spirit of bipartisanship, Clark says, that he hopes will be forged again.

Clark likes some of the comments Obama made about national security during his inaugural address. On the other hand, he was disappointed when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were booed during their introductions.

"I thought it was terrible conduct to hear them jeered, " Clark said.

In the 1980s, Clark retired from public life and returned to San Luis Obispo County for good, where he lives with Joan, his wife of 53 years. After a near-fatal plane crash at his home in 1988, Clark took his survival as a calling and built Chapel Hill, a building he lends to community groups for music and worship.

At age 77, Clark still considers himself a spiritual man who thinks the country is better off with divine guidance.

"Reagan often quoted Lincoln for saying, 'I am driven to my knees daily in the overwhelming conviction that I have no place else to go, '" Clark said. "And one would hope that maybe the new president would have the same reliance on the almighty."

Highlight's from William Clark's career

From his beginnings as a key staffer in the governor's office to his ascension to President Reagan's cabinet, William Clark led a long career in the public sector. Here are some highlights, gleaned from the biography, "The Judge":

  • Clark appeared on the cover of Time magazine on Aug. 8, 1983. In that piece, he was described as "the second most powerful man in the White House." The New York Times, meanwhile, said Clark had more access to Reagan than anyone else.
  • In 1983, Clark was instrumental in forging diplomatic relations with the Vatican. He met with Pope John Paul II multiple times.
  • In 1986, Clark met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to talk about war, terrorism and an oil pipeline. Hussein gave Clark a pistol, which was later placed in the Reagan Library.
  • Clark was a key player in the Cold War and steered the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative — also called Star Wars — a ground-and space-based initiative that was to protect the U. S. from nuclear missiles.
  • In 1981, Clark was the last U. S. official to meet with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat before he was assassinated, not long after they parted.
  • Upon a request from President Reagan, Clark interviewed Sandra Day O'Connor before she was appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court.
  • After helping classical conductor Maxim Shostakovich defect from the Soviet Union in 1981, Clark brought the distinguished conductor and his pianist son, Dmitri, to San Luis Obispo, where they performed at the Mozart Festival.

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