Paul  Kengor

I would like to share a story on Senator Joe Biden that happened 27 years ago. It involved his international humiliation of a good man, and it became a habit for Biden. I’m confident Biden will repeat the performance with Sarah Palin, perhaps during their first vice-presidential debate on October 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.

I’m referring to William P. “Bill” Clark, also known as Judge Clark. Clark, now 76 years old, living in Paso Robles, California, was Ronald Reagan’s confidant, closest aide, and the single most important adviser in the effort to take down the Soviet Union. He was widely heralded from the left to the right, from the likes of Lou Cannon to Cap Weinberger to Edmund Morris to Mike Reagan to Maureen Dowd. But before Clark could do the crucial work he did for President Reagan, he had to survive confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1981.

Reagan had just succeeded in convincing Clark to give up his California Supreme Court seat—to which Governor Reagan had appointed him—to help him come to Washington to run the State Department. Reagan wanted an “America Desk” at State, someone loyal who could ensure the department would be an asset, not a liability. He needed a second-in-command there to help keep an eye on Secretary of State Al Haig. He wanted someone who was not known as a foreign-policy expert but who was a sure-thing to get things done, to keep order, and to truly run the department. He knew he could trust Clark completely.

Unfortunately for Clark, the post required Senate approval, where, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a grinning Joe Biden was poised to embarrass Reagan’s new guy. So, on February 2, 1981, Clark took questions from the senators, including Biden, who launched into what the Washington Post would call, “The Interrogation of Justice Clark.”

Biden began by patronizing Clark for his ability to put himself through school as the son of a poor rancher. “I, for one, think it admirable the way in which you have conducted yourself in getting to and through school,” began Biden. “I have a great deal of admiration for you.”

Biden then proceeded to express his admiration by placing Clark in the stockade, asking him a series of very specific questions that he knew the Judge would not be able to answer.

“I sincerely hope you can answer these questions,” said Biden. “Let me begin with southern Africa—not South Africa, but southern Africa, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique, Angola and so on…. Can you tell me who is the prime minister of South Africa?” Clark answered: “No, sir, I cannot.”