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The Judge's Strategic Gavel

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

A review of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand.

Most of the inner circle who served Ronald Reagan from his governorship in Sacramento all the way to his presidency in Washington, DC are now gone. In 2006, Cap Weinberger and Lyn Nofziger left us. Only a few months ago, Mike Deaver departed. All of these men, as well as myself, wrote books about their experiences. Some of us have been the subject of biographies. A major exception has been the one Reagan adviser that many believe was closest to Reagan and had an especially interesting personal story to tell, not to mention a story of substantial historical value: William P. “Bill” Clark.


Thanks only to the persistence and diligence of authors Paul Kengor and Pat Clark Doerner, only now has Clark’s fascinating story—a true insider’s account of the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan, and especially Reagan’s effort to undermine Soviet communism—at long last been revealed. Clark would never have written the story himself. Only by appealing to Clark’s ongoing sense of duty to Ronald Reagan were the authors able to convince Clark to share what he knows. They prevailed by insisting, correctly, that if Clark did not go on the record, many crucial nuggets on Ronald Reagan and his governorship and presidency would never make the history books.

I know this story as well as anyone. In 1969, I was the one tapped by the governor to replace Bill Clark as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Clark and I were both little younger then—he was 37 years old, I was 38, and he left some big shoes to fill. He had stepped into the spot during an emergency situation when the governorship was faced by a serious sex scandal involving the sitting chief of staff. Clark set the ship back on course. Between us in that first term, we helped pave the way for the successful governorship that followed, and which would eventually provide Ronald Reagan a stepping stone to run for the presidency.

There were many men angling for that chief of staff position when Clark announced he was leaving, but I got the job. Ronald Reagan found me capable and qualified. It didn’t hurt my case when Clark told Reagan that I was the one for the job. Reagan had a habit of accepting Bill Clark’s counsel.


Clark left for his first of many judicial appointments by Governor Reagan, eventually to the level of the state Supreme Court, where his dissenting opinions against any extremely liberal Rose Bird Court were rare glimmers of hope for California. It is there that he became forever known as simply “The Judge.”

In 1981, Clark was tugged away from the court by Ronald Reagan, who again convinced him to put down the plough at his California ranch to come to Washington and serve him first as deputy secretary of state, then national security adviser, and finally as secretary of the interior. This time around, I was insisting to Ronald Reagan that Bill Clark was the man for the job—as the president already knew. This was especially the case for his position running the National Security Council, where I had done a restructuring to give the group and its adviser the essential policy-coordination capacity they were sorely lacking. The restructuring was tailor made for a man like Bill Clark, who turned out to be exactly the right person for the position.

At the NSC, Clark viewed himself as an extension of the president, rather than viewing himself as the world’s smartest man or as someone there to trump the president. He saw to it that the president’s objectives were met and directives were carried out. Clark himself coined the phrase, “Let Reagan be Reagan.” Clark’s strategic mind brought a sense of discipline to the White House national-security process as well as strategic planning to the formulation of foreign policy. He developed a systematic process for the way in which the Reagan White House would deal with the world.


How did this translate into direct policy results? It was at the NSC that Bill Clark provided his lasting contribution: it was there that he and his president laid the foundation to undermine the Soviet Union. Paul Kengor and Pat Clark Doerner tell that story at length, from Clark’s input into overall policy to his unreported role in various sensitive overseas missions like Suriname, in policy initiatives like the Strategic Defense Initiative, in trying to halt the terrible problem of leaking of classified information by certain White House staff, in our tremendous and still unappreciated program of public diplomacy, and in the significant role he played as principal liaison to Pio Cardinal Laghi and Pope John Paul II’s Vatican, of which only a small few of us knew about.

But while the Cold War component of this book will understandably garner the most attention by reviewers, I would like to point to Clark’s role in another episode chronicled in this biography: the way he came to his defense of all of those accused of wrongdoing in the scandal that became known as Iran-Contra. Clark understood that Iran-Contra was, in essence, a classic war-powers dispute between the executive and legislative branches over which had the right to make foreign policy, and at its core was an attempted criminalization of a policy dispute by the president’s congressional opponents.

This is not the place to revisit the details of the controversy or to argue its merits, but it is the place to highlight how Clark once again, as he always had, came to the defense of his friends when The Judge was sure that an injustice had been served.


For the first time, in this book, historians will see the letters that Clark wrote to Ronald Reagan urging pardons for those involved, as well as a draft of an unused speech that Clark personally wrote for Reagan explaining the pardons to the American public. Clark believed that Reagan “was inclined” to act on those pardons and in fact probably would have done so if not for the intervention of Nancy Reagan, as Lou Cannon and others have recorded. Clark came to the defense of his friends.

This is just one example of the many new things that readers will learn in this biography of a very important individual. Clark today is 76 years old and spends his final years at his ranch in Paso Robles, California, where The Judge has not retired from defending the occasional case of local injustice—from a young teen in town to a group of nuns in need of legal assistance (all pro bono)—to coming to Ronald Reagan’s defense on issues like embryonic research on the New York Times op-ed page. He continues to promote the Reagan legacy in many ways. The two of us are proud to serve as the co-chairs of the Reagan Ranch, which we prevented from commercial development and which has grown into a larger center that is becoming an important educational resource on the Reagan life and presidency. I’m proud to join Bill Clark as one of the remaining Sacramento stalwarts still carrying the Reagan torch today. I’m also pleased that at long last this moving and significant untold story has finally been revealed.


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