Reagan political adviser William P. Clark of Shandon dies at 81

In 1969, Clark was appointed by Reagan to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court

bmorem@thetribunenews.comAugust 10, 2013 

President Reagan, left, and William Clark

COURTESY PHOTO

Judge William P. Clark, Shandon cattle rancher and close friend and political adviser to President Ronald Reagan, died Saturday morning at his Shandon home; he was 81.

He died of advanced Parkinson’s disease.

“We love him and are going to miss him a lot,” said his son, Paul Clark.

William Clark’s political comet spanned more than 20 years and burned most brightly under the benefaction of Reagan early in his career. His ranching ethic combined with a keen analytical mind resonated with the Great Communicator.

Clark was born in Oxnard in 1931. After serving in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps in Europe from 1954-55, he attended both Stanford and Loyola Law School — not earning a law degree but able to pass the Bar — before hanging out his law shingle in Ventura.

Law and order may have been in his genes. His grandfather, Robert, was a Ventura County sheriff and U.S. Marshal; his father, William Sr., was a police chief of Oxnard and a Ventura County undersheriff.

Clark, a fourth-generation Californian, signed on as Reagan’s Ventura County campaign manager when the actor ran for governor in 1966, and went on to be a charter member of the governor’s staff, serving first as Reagan’s Cabinet secretary and later as his executive secretary. It was during this time that Clark originated the “mini memo,” usually a one-page document that distilled complex issues for Reagan’s digestion.

By 1969, Clark was appointed by Reagan to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court — a move denounced and censured by the SLO County Bar Association as political patronage. Reagan said the brouhaha was nothing more than a “tempest in a teapot” and that Clark was one of the “brightest and ablest young men” that he knew.

From that point, Clark found himself on the political fast-track courtesy of his mentor: He was re-elected to the Superior Court post the following year, then Reagan appointed him to the state appellate court in Los Angeles in 1972, and the state Supreme Court in 1973. He was 41 years old.

When Reagan ascended to the presidency, he didn’t forget his friend Bill Clark: President Reagan tapped him for Deputy Secretary of State in 1981. The move caused an international sensation when Clark, during confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, acknowledged that he wasn’t up to speed on foreign policy. Although ultimately approved, foreign newspapers had labeled him a “nitwit” and “don’t know man.” It’s believed he was given the job of No. 2 man at the U.S. Department of State to keep an eye on the politically aggressive Alexander Haig, who was secretary of state at the time.

If his role was that of watchdog, it was short-lived.

A year later, he became Reagan’s national security adviser. Then, after controversial Interior Secretary James Watt crossed a final line by making a crude joke about minorities and handicapped individuals, Clark was asked to take his place in the Cabinet. Clark agreed and stayed for almost two years before calling it quits in 1985.

He told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that, “It’s time to get back to the ranch.”

Perhaps the high point of his Washington career was his tenure as national security adviser while Reagan maneuvered the Soviet Union toward arms control during its final years as a political reality.

In an interview at the time, Clark said, “The Soviets will not perceive the U.S. to be weak while Ronald Reagan is president. … They should also recognize that the American people do not want to return to a policy of weakness.”

Upon his return to the Shandon ranch, Clark went back into private practice and started Clark & Co., a business-consulting firm. For the next decade, he worked on creating Chapel Hill, a nondenominational 900-square-foot chapel on 160 acres that Clark donated to the community. Its interior includes stained glass and a 13th-century Moorish ceiling from the William Randolph Hearst collection. A bone relic from Father Junipero Serra is buried near a Hearst fireplace within the chapel.

In his later years, Clark was a strong opponent to abortion and wrote several Viewpoints to The Tribune outlining those beliefs.

Clark’s wife, Joan, died four years ago. He is survived by his five children.

Memorial services will be held Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at Chapel Hill in Shandon.

• • •

William Clark's hand in history: The man who went from small-town judge to Reagan's most trusted adviser looks back on a career dedicated to diplomacy. Read more »

Assistant City Editor Jonah Owen Lamb contributed to this story.

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