The most important adviser to President Ronald Reagan in his takedown of the Soviet empire has died at the age of 81. His name was William P. “Bill” Clark, known to many as simply “Judge Clark,” and he was one of the finest human beings and Americans that this country has ever known. I can say that without exaggeration and with the intimate knowledge of someone who became not only Clark’s biographer but a close friend.
Actually, it was hard to be otherwise. I never met anyone who didn’t like and come to respect Bill Clark. Think about this: Could you name another person, in the Reagan administration or out, praised by figures as diverse as Edmund Morris and Cap Weinberger, Edwin Meese and Lou Cannon, Maureen Dowd and Michael Reagan, Human Events and the New York Times, Time and National Review, and even Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush? As to the last pair, when we prepared the biography of Clark for publication, it wasn’t a huge surprise when we got endorsements from both Carter and Bush. Only Bill Clark could inspire something like that.
And yet, if you asked Bill Clark how that could be, he would smile and say, “They’re easily deceived.”
No, they weren’t. In Clark’s mind, however, they were. This was a devoutly Catholic man of genuine saint-like charity and humility — praise he would characteristically and insistently deny. In fact, the biggest mistake I made in convincing him to let me be his biographer was allowing him veto power over things he objected to. This wasn’t a mistake for the usual reasons. Indeed, if I want to make a criticism of Clark, he would say “much deserved.” The problem was Clark’s refusal to let me commend him for things indubitably much deserved. Clark wouldn’t even let me call me him a “devout” Catholic. If I recall, we settled on “serious” Catholic. That, at the least, could be rightly said of a man who built a church on his ranch outside Paso Robles, California, and whose only real regret in life was that he didn’t pursue the priesthood, leaving an Augustinian novitiate for good in February 1951.
But there was good reason for that, as Clark often noted. “It wasn’t part of the DP, Paul,” he would tell me again and again. “Not part of the DP.”
The “DP,” which Clark and Ronald Reagan pondered together, was the “Divine Plan.”
To that end, God had another route for Bill Clark: it was to become first a lawyer, a rancher, and then connect with Ronald Reagan in a fascinating ride that altered the course of history.
The two men took that ride together. Fellow ranchers, fellow horsemen, fellow cowboys, they were kindred souls — some said like brothers, others said like father and son. They seemed to intuitively know what the other wanted. They were so close that Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s son, emailed me yesterday to say of Clark’s death: “I have lost my father for the second time … Good bye friend.”
For Bill Clark, the partnership began when he helped Reagan’s 1966 campaign for governor. Once Reagan won, Clark was his top aide, eventually chief of staff. Governor Reagan soon began appointing Clark up through various levels of the California court system, all the way to the state Supreme Court (thus the moniker “Judge Clark”). Clark loved the work, and even commuted to Sacramento via a private plane he regularly launched from the driveway-turned-runway of his ranch.
There was only one thing that could tug Bill Clark away from that job: Ronald Reagan’s need for him elsewhere; his sense of duty to Reagan and country. And so, when Reagan became president in January 1981, he convinced — and it truly took convincing — Clark to come to Washington to serve as deputy secretary of state. As Reagan put it, he needed someone he could trust at State, an “America desk” at Foggy Bottom. Bill Clark was that guy.
For the record, Clark first had to survive confirmation hearings before he could take the job at State. That would have been easy if not for a smarmy, smirking politician on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who deliberately tripped up Clark, turning the good man’s appointment into an international spectacle that humiliated the gentlemanly rancher and thrilled our enemies, especially the Soviets. That man, whose charade that February day was one of the ugliest displays in the history of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden.
Despite Biden’s antics, Clark’s performance at State blew away everyone. From Time to the New York Times, he was heralded for his steady hand, as Reagan’s reliable counsel. A year later, at the start of January 1982, Clark became Reagan’s national security adviser, head of the crucial National Security Council. It was there, in that seat, that Clark and Reagan, along with the likes of Bill Casey at the CIA and a group of superb staffers, laid the groundwork to undermine the Soviet Union.
That story cannot be given due justice in this short tribute, but, as a quick summary: The most consequential National Security Decision Directives — NSDDs, the formal documents that created official Reagan administration policy — were completed under Clark’s direction. Clark oversaw the development of NSDDs 2 through 120. The goal of these NSDDs was nothing short of revolutionary: to reverse the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe, to liberate Eastern Europe, and even to bring “political pluralism” (as one NSDD put it) to the Soviet Union. These were dramatic objectives that no one but Clark and Reagan thought possible in 1982.
Beyond NSDDs, any student of the Reagan administration knows that the really big things that happened in Reagan’s Soviet policy took place in the two transformational years that Clark headed the NSC: the meeting with John Paul II at the Vatican, the Westminster speech, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Evil Empire speech, NSDDs 32, 54, 66, 75, just for starters.
When Clark left the NSC position in late 1983, in part due to pressures from White House “moderates” and “pragmatists,” the men surrounding Clark were devastated. They sensed a looming apocalypse; they thought everything they had gained under Clark was suddenly dead. I sat in the tack barn of Clark’s ranch one hot summer day and read their pleas — long, heartfelt, heartbroken letters (which Clark kept). His faithful lieutenants were sure all was lost. Two men, however, were not crestfallen at all: Bill Clark and Ronald Reagan. They just smiled. They were confident the plan was in place. The groundwork had been laid. The DP was ready to prevail.
Clark’s service to Reagan wasn’t over. He went on to serve a short but successful stint as secretary of interior, replacing the embattled James Watt. He also quietly served Reagan throughout the second term in a number of fascinating trouble-shooter and advisory roles that ranged from China’s Three Gorges Dam to Saddam Hussein to Iran-Contra. Virtually none of these tasks made the newspapers, and weren’t supposed to.
But then, alas, came another fascinating twist in the DP. It was what Clark later called a “wake-up call,” or, in his penchant for acronyms, an “AFE” — an Action Forcing Event.
It was March 7, 1988. The 56-year-old Clark taxied into position on the dirt landing strip of his ranch. He decided he was substantially finished with government service and was looking forward to life at the ranch, working cattle, planting olive trees, and developing a vineyard. But his sense of duty to God and country seemed unclear, unsettled. Something wasn’t right.
The night before, Clark had returned from a trip to Europe. He felt jet-lagged, not especially sharp, but his desk at the office in town was piled high with work, and he needed to pick up some fuel. He stepped into his plane and ran up the engine. Early into takeoff, the plane got caught in a crosswind. “I knew right away that I was in trouble,” said Clark. “I lost control.” At about 60 miles per hour, the plane crashed into a supply building to the right of the runway.
Bill Clark lay unconscious in a mangled mess of smoking metal. Ribs broken, shoulder separated, skull fractured, and soaked in blood and fuel, he was alive but hardly out of danger. The engine, simmering hot, was pushed back against his legs, while fuel from the fractured wing-tank sprayed on to the unconscious pilot. For some reason, the plane hadn’t burst into flames. “It should have lit up,” Clark later marveled.
A briefcase in the seat next to Clark contained a Dictaphone/recorder that activated from the force of impact when the plane hit the ground. The audiotape still survives. On the recording, Clark can be heard groaning and calling for help.
Clark’s only coherent plea, “God, please help me!” is immediately followed by the sound of the door being ripped off the plane. Jésus Muñoz, long-time ranch hand and dear friend of Clark to his final hours, had happened upon the crash and raced to the scene. He yanked the door from its hinges and somehow extricated Clark before the plane burst into flames.
Clark remained unconscious for an hour-and-a-half before waking in the intensive care unit at a nearby hospital. He thanked God and then made a decision he had been discerning: He would no longer delay in building that chapel he had thought about over the years. That brush with death, said Clark, was “a little wake-up call … God’s wake-up call.”
“Look,” he told me one summer at his ranch, shyly, sheepishly. “I’m no saint… but the incident helped me decide to go ahead and build the chapel.” To borrow from one of his inspirations, Mother Teresa, he determined to do something beautiful for God, on the ranch property, the same ground where his craft smashed.
Today, that chapel, financed solely by Clark, sits off Route 46 in central California, at the entrance to Clark’s ranch. It’s called Chapel Hill, and is admired by the community and, surely, by the God that Clark dedicated it to.
It contains artifacts collected by Clark and his late wife: originals from 14th to 17th century European monasteries, a special replica from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, surplus ceiling and stone remnants from the William Randolph Hearst collection at nearby San Simeon. On the exterior of the church is a ceramic mosaic of Saint Francis’ Peace Prayer. It was a prayer that Clark and Reagan prayed together. It’s also reflective of the Franciscan friar’s frock that hangs in the closet of Clark’s ranch house, given to him long ago, but which, having decided not to pursue the priesthood, Clark always felt unworthy to don.
In fact, it’s all so magically and providentially Saint Francis-like. In the hospital, having received God’s “wake-up call,” Clark experienced a Francis-like epiphany, as he felt God calling him to build his church.
Clark gave God that church, and God gave Bill Clark 25 more years.
Fittingly, and finally, it’s in that chapel that the funeral service of Bill Clark, Ronald Reagan’s indispensable man and kindred soul, seriously devout Catholic and seriously good man who literally made the world a better place, will be held this week.