William P. Clark: The Quiet Catholic Who Changed the World | An interview with Paul Kengor, co-author of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand
Paul Kengor is a professor at Grove City College and the executive director of the College's The Center for Vision and Values. He is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. Kengor is a frequent television political commentator and opinion page contributor, as well as the author of several best-selling books. He is the author of God and Ronald Reagan, God and George W. Bush, God and Hillary Clinton, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, and co-editor with Peter Schweizer of Assessing the Reagan Presidency.
Kengor has worked for think tanks including the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation, and has served on the editorial board of Presidential Studies Quarterly. He received his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and his master's degree from American University's School of International Service. Kengor, a native of Western Pennsylvania, lives with his wife Susan in Grove City, Pennsylvania, along with their four children.
Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Kengor about The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007), which Kengor co-authored with Patricia Clark Doerner.
Ignatius Insight: Who is William P. Clark and why did you co-author a book about his life?
Paul Kengor: William P. "Bill" Clark, who is known as "The Judge" because of his years of service in the California court system, including the California Supreme Court, is a terrific story that is required reading for every Catholic, not to mention non-Catholics as well, of course. Catholics especially, however, need to know that this man, in my opinion, was the single most important Catholic in the fall of the Soviet Union, next to only Pope John Paul II. That's quite a statement, but it is easy to defend.
Readers will need to read the book to learn why, but I will give one example of his enormous impact on the end of the Cold War: Ronald Reagan, as we now know, had a deliberate policy to undermine atheistic Soviet communism and win the Cold War. That policy was laid out in several crucial NSDDs—National Security Decision Directives—that have since been declassified by the federal government and are now available at the Reagan Library. These NSDDs reveal an unmistakable attempt to undermine and change the Soviet system. I will quote just two of them.
Here's NSDD-32, which described this Reagan administration objective toward the USSR: "To contain and reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world.... [T]o contain and reverse the expansion of Soviet influence worldwide."
Another was NSDD-75, which stated this similar intention: "To contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism.... This will remain the primary focus of U.S. policy toward the USSR. To promote ... the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system in which the power of the privileged ruling elite is gradually reduced."
These were grand objectives that the establishment and the experts judged utterly impossible, and yet precisely that occurred before the decade ended.
As I learned when I first read these extraordinary documents at the Reagan Library—smoking-gun evidence, a paper trail showing that this was the actual Reagan administration objective—I was stunned to learn that they were all done in the brief two-year window that Bill Clark served as Reagan's national security adviser. Clark oversaw the development of these NSDDs. In fact, he oversaw the development of over 100 of these NSDDs. Clark was the guy at the head of the Reagan railroad who laid the track to Cold War victory, and then silently rode of into the sunset and didn't talk about what he did—a humility derived from his upbringing and strong Catholic faith.
The book is filled with policy specifics that flowed from that objective, from Clark shepherding everything from Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the president's covert plan to bankrupt the USSR through economic warfare.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What were Clark's top accomplishments during his time in Washington, DC in the 1980s?
Paul Kengor: Winning the Cold War. Beyond that, he was always there for Ronald Reagan as the president's sure-thing, as his most trusted, dependable adviser—as his constant troubleshooter always ready for deployment on the most sensitive mission. Reagan could count on Clark do always do his job and to complete the most sensitive mission in complete confidence, without blabbing about it. In the book, we disclose for the first time the extraordinary April 1983 covert mission to save the South American country of Suriname from becoming a Soviet-Cuban proxy state. Clark and crew kept this quiet for over twenty years, talking only now. Historians need to learn about this. This is for the history books. We lay out all the details in the book.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What were some of the challenges involved in writing this biography?
Paul Kengor: My biggest challenge was getting this humble man to tell this significant story, which is also simply a good story about a man and his spiritual journey, aside from the historical significance of what he and Reagan did together. I knew this was a wonderful story in all aspects. I finally prevailed—with the indispensable help of Pat Clark Doerner, a God-send on this project—only by consistently appealing to Bill Clark's sense of duty, duty to the Reagan record and legacy and duty to history.
IgnatiusInsight.com: When did Clark first meet Ronald Reagan and why did they become such close friends?
Paul Kengor: They first met in 1965, when Reagan actually contacted Clark to try to convince Clark to run for office, which Clark always refused, having always eschewed power—another irony of a man who would come to be called "the second most powerful man in Washington," behind only the president. They were similar in so many ways, even physically. They agreed on just about everything. They also had this uncanny sense of simply understanding one another. Some have said there was almost a kind of telepathy between them. Clark recalls how when he was a young man, when he and his father corralled animals at the ranch, he could simply glance at his father and know what his father wanted him to do. He had that same sense with Reagan, whether they were at a meeting in Sacramento in the 1960s or in the Oval Office in the 1980s.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How is it that Clark, who was so close to Reagan, has received relatively little attention for his work in the Reagan administration?
Paul Kengor: Actually, at the time, he received quite a bit of attention. He made the cover of Time magazine and the New York Times magazine both in August 1983, and was widely reported by sources from the left to the right—Edmund Morris, Lou Cannon, Time, the New York Times, Cap Weinberger, Michael Reagan—as Reagan's closest and most influential adviser. What happened later is that he became the forgotten man because he never bothered to tell his story. As Lou Cannon and Floyd Brown—Brown was the director of the Reagan Ranch—both stress repeatedly, they have never known anyone in Washington who promoted himself less than Bill Clark. Brown notes that many people in Washington spend half their time promoting themselves. Clark never did any of that.
Bill Clark could have cashed in "big time" in the 1980s with the tell-all insider's account of the Reagan presidency, but he refused. A major New York publishing house would have given him a six- to seven-figure advance. Some of these guys wrote two, three, even four memoirs. Enough already! They had said everything in memoir #1! Here was Bill Clark with more to say than almost any of them, but he kept it all to himself.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How important were Clark's relationships with the Vatican and key Catholic leaders, including Pope John Paul II?
Paul Kengor: Clark helped set up that initial and historic June 1982 meeting between President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, where the two men confided in one another that they believed that God had spared their lives for a special purpose, which they concluded was to undermine Soviet communism, beginning particularly in Poland, which both men—as well as Clark—saw as the wedge that could crack the entire Communist Bloc.
Over the next year and a half that followed, Clark became the primary White House conduit to the Vatican. Along with CIA director Bill Casey, another committed Catholic, Clark met very frequently with Pio Laghi, the apostolic delegate to Washington. He and Casey had code language when discussing over the telephone the need for a quick meeting with Laghi: "It's time to get some cappuccino," they would say. That meant a visit to Laghi's residence for a cappuccino and to share information about the critical activities going on around the world, especially in Poland. They were the middle men between Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the principal liaisons. Clark was the point man who would then report that information directly back to Reagan.
The New York Times wrote of how Clark and Reagan met privately together, as everyone else in the White House waited to see what important decisions the two had resolved.
I've also concluded that Clark was far more influential than he admits on the crucial matter of the Reagan administration's diplomatic recognition of the Vatican.
IgnatiusInsight.com: After nearly dying in a plane crash in 1988, Clark retired and embarked upon a rather unusual building project on his ranch in California. What was that project and what inspired Clark to pursue it?
Paul Kengor: With his full-time service to Reagan finished, Clark one day in the spring of 1988 lifted his private plan from the driveway/runway on his ranch, but never quite lifted off. He veered off to the right and crashed. It is amazing that he survived that crash. I've seen the remains of the airplane. As he lay there in that canyon moaning, the fuel pump sprayed fuel all over his body. The tape recorder he carried with him activated in the course of the crash. I've listened to the recording with him. You can hear him moaning indiscernible words. The first decipherable words were these: "God, please help me." At that precise moment, his ranch-hand, Jésus Munoz ripped the door off the plane. It was truly Providential that Jésus, or anyone for that matter, happened to drive by, since that spot sees only about four vehicles per day. After Clark was pulled from the wreckage, the plane burst into flames.
Clark saw this as a sign from God—a "wake-up call" as he put it—to begin a new phase of his life. The pieces had already been put into place to win the Cold War. Now, it was time to put the bricks and stones in place to build that chapel on his ranch, to begin the next phase of his life: service to God. So, to borrow from Mother Teresa, he did something beautiful for God. There, at his ranch, in a spot high on a hill overlooking Route 46, he has built a gorgeous little chapel, filled with artifacts, which is the pride of the community.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Is it true that you first met Clark at that chapel?
Paul Kengor: Yes, in the summer of 2001. It was there that I interviewed him for my book on the faith of Ronald Reagan, ultimately called God and Ronald Reagan. We were initially scheduled to meet at his office in town, in downtown Paso Robles. I remember telling my wife in the car that I hoped I would be told once I arrived that Clark was at the chapel, not the office, and I would need to interview him at the church instead. That's exactly what happened.
There, in the front pew of that blessed church, a few feet from the Blessed Sacrament, I talked to Bill Clark for the first time. We talked about the faith of Reagan and the close spiritual relationship they had together.
Like Reagan, I was a Protestant at that time. I hadn't converted to the Catholic faith yet. Looking back, however, I think something special must have happened near that Real Presence. It was there that my close friendship and relationship with Clark began, and it was there that this odyssey began. I apparently first earned his trust that day. I would be the only one ever who was successful in convincing him to tell his story.
What I'm telling you right now, about that special moment near the host, never struck me until it was prompted by a questioner during a talk on this book at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC on November 2, 2007. Then, too, I just happened to be near the Blessed Sacrament, this time at the small chapel inside the center.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How are Bill and his wife Joan these days?
Paul Kengor: They are struggling but doing okay. Bill likes to keep that information private. His health is not good. He has Parkinson's disease. He quips that the Good Lord gave Parkinson's to such saints as his late father and the late Holy Father, and now has gotten around to sinners like himself. The medication for the disease saddles him, and he is no longer able to saddle his horse, which, as had happened to Ronald Reagan, is probably his greatest disappointment. But, he does have that chapel at the end of that ranch, along with the very special contents inside, including the Lord Himself.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
The Mission: The Introduction to The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand | Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner
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