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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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On a spring day in 1988, William P. Clark--known by friends and associates as "The Judge"--taxied into position on the dirt landing strip of his thousand-acre ranch near Paso Robles, the heart of California's Central Coast wine country. At age fifty-six, he was substantially finished with government service and looking forward to life at the ranch, working cattle, planting olive trees, and developing a vineyard. Both orchard and vineyard would complement a Spanish mission-style chapel--at this point no more than a dream, yet to be designed.

Judge Clark, whose request to be called Bill goes mostly unheeded, had left the Reagan administration three years earlier. He had served Ronald Reagan for more than twenty years, beginning when Reagan ran for governor of California. During his two years as Reagan's national security advisor, Clark was--next to the President--probably the most powerful man in America, and thus among the most powerful men in the world. Though no longer a regular presence at Reagan's side, Clark continued to serve his country from the background and to advance causes he had been unable to address during his public life.

On this day, as he prepared his tandem-seat Super Cub for takeoff, his public career was mostly behind him. 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.

Early into takeoff, the plane got caught in a crosswind. "I knew right away that I was in trouble", says Clark. "I lost control." At about sixty miles per hour, the plane veered into a supply building to the right of the runway, missing the above-ground fuel tanks outside the building. Clark slumped 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 onto the unconscious pilot. For some reason, the plane failed to burst into flames. "It should have lit up", Clark says, pausing. "Statistically, it should have lit up--but it didn't."

A briefcase on the seat next to Clark contained a Dictaphone somehow activated in the course of the crash. The audiotape still survives; Clark and his sons have listened to it, but wife Joan refuses. On the recording, listeners can hear the unconscious Clark groaning and calling for help.

Clark's only coherent plea, "God, please help me!" is followed by the sound of ripping metal. Jésus Muñoz, longtime ranch hand and friend, had happened upon the crash and yanked the door from its hinges. Clark's feet were entangled in the two rudder panels, jammed beneath the engine. As Muñoz struggled to pull Clark free, fuel spilled over both men. Finally, pulling with all of his strength, Muñoz tugged Clark from the wreckage.

Clark remained unconscious for an hour-and-a-half before waking in the intensive care unit at a hospital forty-five minutes from the scene. While his sons watched, he cautiously moved his legs and feet, rotated his fingers and arms, and winced at the sharp pain in his shoulder and head. He offered thanks to God that he had survived, that he had been alone on the flight, and then he made a decision: He would no longer delay building the chapel. That brush with death, said Clark, was "a little wake-up call in my life.... God's wake-up call." [1]

"Look," he says, "I'm no Saint Paul, but the incident helped me decide to go ahead and build the chapel." Within a few years, the chapel, financed solely by Clark, was completed on top of a grassy hill at the entrance to his ranch. Incorporating a surplus ceiling and stone remnants from the William Randolph Hearst collection at nearby San Simeon and containing sacred art collected by Bill and Joan from fourteenth- to seventeenth-century European monasteries, the chapel hosts a number of religious services and cultural events throughout the year. "Chapel Hill", as it is known locally, is open to those of all faiths and is the pride of the local community, to which Clark has donated it.

Clark has come full circle. He started life as a young man on a California ranch, and now closes it as a man in his seventies on a California ranch, where he proudly struggles with the progression of Parkinson's disease. "God gave Parkinson's to such saints as John Paul II and my father," he said, "and now he has gotten around to the sinners, such as myself"

These sunset years are a time for reflecting on the past, as well as for accepting what lies ahead. Though not without some regrets, judge Clark may be allowed a proper amount of satisfaction in his public record. During the Sacramento years, Clark was appointed Governor Reagan's chief of staff at a time of scandal and crisis and helped to right the ship of state. When he thought his work done, he decided it was time to return to his ranch. The Governor then named him superior court judge, later elevated him to the court of appeal and, finally, appointed him justice of the California Supreme Court. After Reagan ascended to the presidency, he requested that Clark go with him to Washington, where Clark became his deputy secretary of state, then national security advisor and, lastly, secretary of the interior.

Official Reagan biographer Edmund Morris dubbed Clark the "most impressive" advisor in the Reagan White House and "the most important and influential person in the first administration". An August 1983 Time magazine cover story entitled "The Man with the President's Ear", informed the public that next to Reagan, Clark was the "most powerful man in the White House", so close to Reagan, and so loyal to and trusted by the President, that White House staff called him Uncle Bill. [2]

"He was always there when my Dad needed him", says the former President's oldest son, Michael. "He was very important to my dad's career. And their relationship was more than political; they were good friends." [3]

President Reagan himself told the press that Clark was "one of my most trusted and valued advisers." [4] Again, "no one has given me more faithful service above and beyond the call of duty." [5] When Reagan had a tough task, he called upon Clark, his troubleshooter, his right-hand man. [6] As photographs illustrate, Bill Clark was often literally at Reagan's right side, and always trying to fulfill the adage that he coined, "Let Reagan be Reagan." No one was more inclined to let Reagan act on his instincts.

Nowhere was this more true than in determining policy in regard to the Soviet Union. During two critical years as Reagan's national security advisor, Clark helped lay the groundwork for the administration's remarkable effort to undermine Soviet communism and win the Cold War. Another cover story at the time, in the New York Times Magazine, noted that Clark was not only "the most influential foreign-policy figure in the Reagan administration", but also "the president's chief instrument" in confronting Soviet influence in the world. The two of them, often alone, met to discuss some of the boldest and most successful actions of the entire Cold War. As the New York Times' White House correspondent reported, colleagues observed Clark returning from his private meetings with Reagan and prepared themselves for the "important decisions" to come. [7]

Roger W. Robinson, Jr., a senior staff member at Clark's National Security Council, stated categorically: "More than any others, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clark won the Cold War. Period." [8] Thomas C. Reed, another NSC staff member, agrees that Clark was "utterly essential" to the strategy to prevail over the USSR. He says that Clark "put the pieces in place to bring the Cold War to a conclusion .... Clark was absolutely key to that." [9] Norman A. Bailey, yet another NSC staffer, went so far as to say that America "owes a very great debt" to Clark, who "did more than any other individual to help the President change the course of history and put an end to an empire that was, indeed, 'the embodiment of evil.'" [10] Ronald Reagan himself told Clark at the height of the Cold War: "All of us owe you a great debt .... ...Thanks for being there, as you always are." [11]

And yet, the indispensable Clark became the forgotten man--as Edmund Morris recorded, "so private, quiet, and unflamboyant that he's now largely forgotten". [12] He was forgotten in part because he never promoted himself. Said former Secretary of Defense and longtime Reagan aid Caspar Weinberger: "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." [13]

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon also remarked on Clark's self-effacing nature. "[Clark] did more for Reagan ... while calling less attention to himself than anyone else I know." [14] In its 50th anniversary issue, National Review listed Clark among a select group of leading "unsung conservatives", while emphasizing that Clark was "the most significant Reagan ally not to have written a memoir". [15]

What is the reason Clark has neglected to record his accomplishments for posterity? Clark is the prototypical man of the West who one day saddled his horse and drifted off into the sunset, exiting Washington with no fanfare and no one watching.

As he had no interest in promoting himself, Clark's contributions have not been fully reported. Many of his actions in the 1980s have remained secret, particularly his Cold War communications with Pope John Paul II and his meetings with Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Saddam Hussein, and others.

Bill Clark and his mission have gone unheralded, which was the way he wanted it. At long last, this is the story.


[1] Clark, "Alumni Spotlight/Q&A", Vista Magazine, p. 19.

[2] Maureen Dowd, "The Man with the President's Ear", Time, August 8, 1983.

[3] Interview with Michael Reagan, May 9, 2005.

[4] Reagan, "Remarks Announcing the Appointment of Robert C. McFarlane as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs", Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, October 17, 1983, p. 1471.

[5] Reagan wrote this to Clark in a February 8, 1985 letter on White House letterhead.

[6] Brown, who is West Coast director of the Young America's Foundation, which owns and manages the Reagan Ranch, notes that next to Nancy Reagan, Clark was Reagan's "single closest friend and confidant--and everyone knows that! ... Whenever the president had a tough job, look who got it--Bill Clark." Peter Dailey, a Reagan-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ireland who has known Clark since high school, agrees: "Whenever the going got tough, Reagan always wanted Bill Clark around." Interviews with Floyd Brown, October 5, 2005, and with Peter Dailey, January 17, 2006.

[7] The article stated: "Colleagues observe Mr. Clark ambling back from his private meetings with Mr. Reagan and wonder what important decisions are coming that might catch them by surprise." Steven R. Weisman, "The Influence of William Clark", New York Times Magazine, August 14, 1983.

[8] Interview with Roger Robinson, June 6 and 8 and July 7, 2005. Robinson adds: "That's not to say that Cap Weinberger, Bill Casey, Ed Meese, Jeane Kirkpatrick and others were not major, integral players .... There were many who were crucial to this huge enterprise. But at the end of the day you really had to rely on Bill to carry the water with the president. The extraordinary relationship and implicit trust between these two men was the force multiplier that implemented strategy a secret multipronged that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. No question about it." Interviews with Roger Robinson, June 6 and 8, 2005.

[9] Interview with Tom Reed, April 6, 2005.

[10] Norman A. Bailey, The Strategic Plots That Won the Cold War: National Security Decision Directive 75 (McLean, VA: The Potomac Foundation, 1999), p. i.

[11] This November 7, 1983 statement from Reagan on White House letterhead is held by Clark in his files.

[12] Edmund Morris interviewed by The American Enterprise, November/December 1999.

[13] Interview with Cap Weinberger, April 14, 2005.

[14] Cannon quoted in: "Unsung Conservatives: Fifteen Who Made a Difference", National Review, December 19, 2005, p. 33.

[15] "Unsung Conservatives: Fifteen Who Made a Difference", National Review, December 19, 2005, p. 33.

Visit The Judge website for further information, praise, and more.

Paul Kengor is the acclaimed author of the best-selling books God and Ronald Reagan, God and George W. Bush, and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. He is a professor of Political Science at Grove City College, and is a frequent contributor to MSNBC, C-SPAN, NPR, FOX NEWS.

Patricia Clark Doerner, 4th generation Ojai rancher, is a writer, historian and community activist, with a B.A. (English Literature) from the University of California and a graduate degree (Anglo-Irish Literature) from University College Dublin. She has taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara and at Cal State University, Northridge and publishes and lectures on local history and the history of Ireland.

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