William P. Clark, 81, requiescat in pace

The close friend and aide to Ronald Reagan known for his humility, loyalty, and deep Catholic faith

William P. Clark, close friend and aide to Ronald Reagan, died this past Saturday morning at his ranch in California. His biographer, Dr. Paul Kengor, stated, in an e-mail sent later that same day,

He died at the ranch so dear to his heart, surrounded by the family so dear to his heart.
Bill had been ailing for a long time—a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He began receiving hospice care about six months ago. It’s amazing that he survived as long as he did. Typical of Bill, he kept hanging on and fighting and fighting. We expected him to go, but for some reason he still felt like he needed to stay in this world and do something more. He was always thinking of what he and Ronald Reagan called “The DP”—The Divine Plan.
Born October 23, 1931 in Oxnard, California, Bill Clark was 81 years old. He now joins his beloved wife, Joan.
The funeral Mass will take place this Wednesday, August 14, at 9:30 AM at Chapel Hill, the lovely church that Bill built himself on his ranch property outside of Paso Robles, California.
[F]ew individuals were as close and important to Ronald Reagan as Bill Clark. And beyond his impact on Reagan and the Cold War, Bill Clark was simply a wonderful man.

In 2007, Kengor, with co-author Patricia Clark Doerner, released the biography, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press). In the Introduction, the authors wrote:

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.

“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.”

President Reagan himself told the press that Clark was “one of my most trusted and valued advisers.” 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.

In a 2007 interview with Ignatius Insight, Kengor highlighted Clark’s humility, faith, and loyalty:

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.

Read the entire interview.

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.