This post is another in a series of interviews with Grove City College friend and colleague, Paul Kengor. In this interview, Dr. Kengor discloses behind-the-scenes events involving Ronald Reagan and one of his closest advisors, Judge Bill Clark. In his new book about Bill Clark, Paul provides rich detail about Judge Clark’s role in winning the Cold War. He also provides this look into the rest of the story behind what would eventually be the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor.
Throckmorton: You have written about several prominent political figures. Your latest book is about Judge William P. “Bill” Clark, titled, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007). Tell us a little about who he was and what roles he played in the nation’s recent political history.
Kengor: In so many ways, Bill Clark is the untold story of Ronald Reagan’s political career, from Reagan’s governorship to presidency, and was no doubt the most instrumental and forgotten player in the effort to defeat atheistic Soviet communism. Clark is one of the most important figures in the fall of communism—period. Among Catholics—Clark is a devout Catholic—he was the single most significant American Catholic in the collapse of communism, and, in that respect, I would argue the second most important Catholic in the world in terms of the Soviet collapse, next only to Pope John Paul II.
Naturally, one might ask: If Bill Clark was so central to this huge moment in history, why don’t we know more about him? Because of his striking humility: he never promoted himself, always refusing to tell his story, until now—in this book.
Throckmorton: Aside from what Clark did in the Cold War, you talk about “what might have been” in the Culture War, and the difference Clark could have made for the cause of life in the United States. Talk about that.
Kengor: This is the other untold story, and the one theme in the book that thus far has not received the attention it merits. In June 1981, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart announced that he was stepping down from the high court. Ronald Reagan, the new president, needed a replacement for Stewart. At that time, Bill Clark was serving as Reagan’s deputy secretary of state, fresh off a decade of service as a judge in the California court system, where Governor Reagan had appointed him all the way up to the California Supreme Court.
So, once Stewart resigned, Reagan called Clark into the Oval Office and asked him if he wanted to be considered for the court vacancy. Clark said no. He said he enjoyed what he was doing for Reagan’s foreign policy, and he never came to Washington to die there. He wanted to serve Reagan faithfully for a few crucial years and then return to California to get back to his family and life on his ranch.
When Clark said that, President Reagan pulled a note card from his coat pocket—which included only a few names, I believe with Clark’s at the top—and said, “That’s what I thought you’d say, Bill.” Reagan scratched off Clark’s name.
That was a great day for those who have no respect for the sanctity and dignity of unborn human life. They exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
I have no doubt that if Clark had said “yes,” he would still to this day be sitting on the Supreme Court. Instead, the job went to Sandra Day O’Connor.
Throckmorton: Would Judge Clark have voted to overturn Roe v. Wade?
Kengor: Absolutely. Bill Clark would have been the swing vote that overturned Roe v. Wade, particularly through the 1992 case, Casey v. Planned Parenthood. He would not have voted the awful way that Sandra Day O’Connor voted.
Furthermore, we need to consider the influence he could have had not only through his own vote but possibly on the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan pick that came after O’Connor. Clark had known Kennedy well. They regularly had lunch together when they were both judges in San Francisco, Clark on the state Supreme Court and Kennedy on the federal court. Kennedy, a fellow conservative Catholic with Irish roots, was known to be pro-life, a key reason why Reagan nominated him. Kennedy, however, is a man easily influenced by others, including the anti-life culture in Washington and on the high court. He became a reliable anti-life vote for those who champion abortion rights.
Had Clark served on the high court, the vote on Casey could have flipped from 5-4 against Casey to 5-4 in favor, and perhaps even 6-3 in favor if Clark influenced Kennedy.
Throckmorton: Did Clark know at the time that he could have played this historical role?
Kengor: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure. This much was and remains certain: Rather than win the Culture War, Bill Clark instead went on to run the Reagan National Security Council, where, through roughly 100 National Security Decision Directives (plus much more), he laid the foundation to win the Cold War. He opted to defeat the evil of Soviet communism rather than the evil of American abortion.
I suppose that’s a large enough challenge and contribution for one man for one lifetime. He left the Culture War to others. That’s now our task.
Throckmorton: How can people find out more about this book?
Kengor: Ignatius Press has set up a website, www.TheJudgeBook.com. Please take a look. This man’s life is a quite notable and moving story.