Andrew Maykuth Online
Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
July 7, 1991
Standing alone
Ramsey Clark was an outsider even when he was in Lyndon Johnson's cabinet. And in the 25 years since, he's made few compromises.

THE AUDIENCE -- AN ASSORTMENT of students, graying activists and revolutionary aspirants in Che Guevara berets -- has been patient. For 90 minutes, 500 of them have sat in a high school auditorium in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, listening to blustery speechifying about global politics and war and peace. At last, the moment they've been waiting for is at hand.

Hearing himself introduced, Ramsey Clark unfolds himself from a chair and strides to a podium across the stage. Long before he reaches it, the crowd erupts in an outpouring of affection. They are on their feet, applauding, some shouting his first name as though he were a family friend. Clark, ever sober, acknowledges the adulation with a modest nod.

He has come to soothe the beleaguered spirits of the peace activists in front of him. A few weeks earlier, the nation had rejoiced as the allied military overran Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Clark is here to say that the Persian Gulf War was not such a tidy affair.

"The devastation that took place in the six weeks of U.S. attacks is unlike the devastation seen in any other war," he says in a drawl that reveals a trace of his native Texas. He describes his visit to Iraq during the height of the aerial bombing, when he and a video crew were among the few Americans permitted to enter.

Iraqi civilians, not the military, absorbed the brunt of the bombing, he says. No military targets were near the damage he surveyed. The Iraqi military "would have been out of its cotton-pickin' mind" to be in such vulnerable positions.

The audience is absorbed by this man, who looks and sounds so different from them. Jut-jawed and wiry at 6-foot-3, Clark has been frequently likened to Gary Cooper with a flat nose. At 63, he still has most of his hair, which he wears in the same establishment cut he had when President Johnson named him attorney general in 1966. On this night, he appears to be the only person in the auditorium wearing a necktie, although the narrow strip of fabric hanging from his collar looks like a relic from the '60s. Some might say the same for the man wearing it.

Clark's cadence picks up as he develops his point. The damage he saw in Iraq can lead to only one conclusion, he says. The allies deliberately bombed Iraqi civilians. And under international law, bombing civilians intentionally is a war crime. "It's an impeachable offense of the clearest order," he says.

He has scored a direct hit with the audience. All 500 leap from their seats and roar in agreement. "It is imperative," he concludes, "that we the people compel the dismantlement of the American military machine."

He leaves the stage to deafening applause.

But beyond the auditorium, out in the mainstream, Ramsey Clark's opinion causes nary a ripple. Conservatives long ago dismissed him as a liberal kook; the news media haven't been any kinder. Newsweek has called him "this war's Jane Fonda." Even the liberal establishment keeps him at a distance, wary of what he's done in the 25 years since he was the nation's top prosecutor.

Clark still has admirers, men and women who respect his adherence to issues of conscience in a time when power seems to have none. "He is in a tradition of the great dissenters, like Hugo Black and William O. Douglas," says Victor Navasky, the editor of the Nation magazine. "Late in their lives, their points of view became general wisdom."

But in Clark's case, the older he gets, the closer he seems to wander to the fringe.

AS A POLITICAL INSIDER, RAMSEY Clark had such promising beginnings. The son of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, he was nurtured on Texas politics. From the lands division of the Justice Department, he rose to become attorney general at the age of 39. Two decades ago, liberals in several states explored his possibilities as a presidential candidate.

Now, he is organizing something called the International War Crimes Tribunal to judge the United States' behavior in Iraq.

"He has been a great loss to the mainstream left-liberal community, and it's his own fault," says Melvin L. Wulf, the former legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union and a former law partner of Clark's.

Many people who know Clark wonder how he became so alienated. While outwardly friendly, Clark is not particularly warm and he confides in few people. "Probably the most revealing thing I could say about Ramsey is that I worked with him for five years and don't really know him that well," says Wulf. "He's a bit impenetrable. He keeps his own counsel very, very closely."

His father, Tom C. Clark, was a hawkish Dallas lawyer whose friends included the likes of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn. They helped Tom Clark find a job in the Justice Department, where he helped coordinate the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II. Harry S. Truman named him attorney general in 1945.

As attorney general, Tom Clark took some positions that his son would disavow, including establishing the attorney general's list of subversive organizations. In 1949, Truman appointed Clark to the Supreme Court, where he established a reputation as a strict constructionist.

By all accounts, Ramsey Clark's relationship with his father was immensely complex. Above his desk, Clark keeps several fading color photographs of his father wearing his Supreme Court gown. He himself defines the kinship elliptically. "There are a few questions in life that don't have an easy answer, and one of them is a man's relationship with his father," he once said.

In 1945, at age 17, Clark quit high school against his father's wishes and enlisted in the Marines. Afterward, he got a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Texas, then a master's degree in history and a law degree from the University of Chicago. He completed eight years of college in four years.

Between universities, Clark married Georgia Welch, a Texas classmate. Their son, Tom, works for the Justice Department as an environmental lawyer. Their daughter, Rhonda, was born retarded. Raising her, Clark has said, gave him "enormous empathy for the poor, the deprived and the handicapped, the sense of a need to help."

After working for 10 years at the family law firm in Dallas, Ramsey went to Washington. Lyndon Johnson, the new vice president, got the 33-year-old lawyer a job as head of the lands division at the Justice Department. It wasn't long before he moved on to the more exciting issues of the day, including monitoring the civil rights movement. "The civil rights division was really a beehive," Clark recalls. "Night and day, it was just humming down there."

He sat in on most of the central meetings of Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department. "Ramsey usually was the one who raised the moral questions about issues," recalls Ed Guthman, a University of Southern California journalism professor who was the spokesman for the department at the time.

When Nicholas Katzenbach left the Justice Department in 1966, Johnson named Clark his acting attorney general. After the Senate confirmed Clark as attorney general in 1967, his father retired from the Supreme Court to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Those who knew Tom Clark were surprised to learn that Ramsey was not a chip off the old block. The younger Clark opposed the death penalty and wiretapping. He locked horns with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover over investigative techniques. And he opposed the Vietnam War.

Clark recalls those days as the height of an idealistic era. "We thought we could end poverty. We thought we could end racism. We thought we could end violence through gun control and the end of the death penalty. We thought we could live by the fair use of law enforcement, you wouldn't beat up people, you wouldn't spy on them, you wouldn't trick 'em. Toward the end, we thought we could end the war."

The goals were illusory. Clark's colleagues in the White House soon regarded his overall wariness of government power as a liability. When Richard Nixon made Clark an issue in his law-and-order campaign of 1968, Clark was frozen out of the White House.

Johnson, who had known Clark since he was a child, didn't even invite his attorney general to the President's final reception for cabinet members.

RAMSEY CLARK'S OFFICE IN Greenwich Village is hardly magisterial. The window looks out on an airshaft. The floor is cluttered with legal files, some pertaining to the 17 death-penalty cases he is appealing. The only recognition of his Washington days is in the memorabilia and photographs mounted on the walls.

Clark has the endearing demeanor of an country lawyer. He wears old cardigans and props his feet up on his desk drawer. He rarely raises his voice and he never calls anybody a name - he is Mr. Rogers with a twang.

When he left the Justice Department in 1969, Clark followed the traditional path of ex-government officials - he traded his fame for a high-paying job at a prestigious Park Avenue law firm. But Clark became more interested in impoverished underdogs, and left the firm in 1973.

By that time, he had established himself as a "movement" lawyer. He defended the Rev. Philip Berrigan, the antiwar activist. He represented the Eskimos in a land claim against the federal government. In 1972, he flew to Hanoi and denounced the U.S. bombing there. He also wrote Crime in America, a book that blamed the American penal system for creating criminals. Hoover called him "a jellyfish."

Clark's alliances bridged the conflicting worlds of insiders and outsiders. William Kunstler, the radical civil rights attorney, recalls how he first met Clark when he and Tom Hayden visited the former attorney general at his Greenwich Village apartment, where he still lives today. They wanted him to testify for the defense in the Chicago Seven trial. (Clark agreed, but Judge Julius Hoffman turned down his testimony as irrelevant.) Clark later worked with Kunstler defending inmates charged with murder in the Attica prison uprising.

Clark was behaving like a man freed of institutional constraints. "It's my guess he was always this way," says Kunstler. "It might be when you're a part of government, you can't do everything you want to do."

But in 1974, Clark was not yet ready to forsake government. At the urging of admirers, he ran as the Democratic candidate for Jacob Javits' U.S. Senate seat in New York. During his campaign, he called for a 50 percent reduction in defense spending. He turned away contributions of more than $100. He refused to run spot television advertisements.

The campaign, widely admired for its integrity, nevertheless failed to overcome the harsh realities of the electoral process. Clark lost by a quarter-million votes. He tried again in 1976, but he lost in the Democratic primary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Some say these defeats soured him on working within the system. Clark now says he has no regrets - "Frankly, I would have been bored," he told an interviewer last year - and after that he became a globetrotting gadfly, a professional man of conscience.

In 1980, with 53 Americans being held hostage, Clark led a delegation to Iran for a conference on "U.S. Crimes in Iran." They went in defiance of a U.S. ban on travel to Iran. President Carter threatened to have them arrested.

Clark's trip created such an furor that clients began shunning the law partnership he'd formed a few years earlier with Wulf and several other civil liberties lawyers, Wulf says. The partnership dissolved in 1983. "He would sometimes take a position for what seemed to be the highest sort of inflexible principle, which was total nonsense," Wulf says.

Clark took increasingly public stands. If the United States was involved in a military action, he was certain to protest. He journeyed to Grenada in 1983, Libya in 1986 and Panama in 1989 to condemn U.S. military actions against those countries.

Some of Clark's journeys seemed to be less fact-finding trips than opportunities to prove his preconceived notions. In 1979, he condemned Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets after a four-day trip in Lebanon sponsored by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Max Holland, a historian and journalist who went on the tour, later blasted Clark for ignoring evidence that the PLO had mixed military targets among civilians.

Clark came under similar criticism earlier this year, after he traveled to Iraq. In a video documenting his trip, he is seen walking through the rubble of what Iraqis identified as a Pepsi plant in Basra. The cameraman asks his opinion of U.S. contentions that the plant was making chemicals.

"Anything's possible as far as what they'll say; we know that," Clark replies. "They don't know as much as they claim to know, and they don't tell us what they really know. And they lie."

These trips might not have been so isolating if they were all he'd done in the decade. But at the same time, he was choosing to defend several extremists that liberals considered indefensible. Some of them have virulent anti-Semitic positions, and some people believed Clark sympathized with their points of view.

He argued Lyndon LaRouche's appeal of his conviction on mail fraud and tax evasion charges, on the grounds that he did not get a fair trial. He embraced the PLO, defending it against a suit by the family of Leon Klinghoffer, the Jewish passenger killed on the Achille Lauro. He also fought the extradition of Nazi war criminal Karl Linnas.

"Clark has turned into a legal 911 for a tawdry collection of accused terrorists and neo- or ex-Nazis," the New Republic complained in April.

He says he took those cases because high legal principles were at stake - he objects to the government's willingness to throw its weight at organizations with unorthodox political philosophies. "If you can't protect the right to a fair jury trial for somebody who's unpopular," he says, "you can't expect to have one where it's needed the most."

Those who admire Clark say that his adherence to principles, no matter how unpopular, should be revered rather than ridiculed.

"People look at Ramsey and say, 'Why is he living his life that way?' " says Roger Wilkins, a professor at George Mason University who worked with Clark at the Justice Department in 1965.

"When a person says, 'By God, I'm not going to use the fact that I was attorney general of the United States to be a rainmaker at a law firm and make tons and tons of money, and I'm going to use it to call attention to what I see to be injustices,' I think that's pretty good use of your law degree and your conscience. If some people think you're excessive or eccentric, that's their problem."

ONE OF THE MOST DIVISIVE episodes of Ramsey Clark's career began early in the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, when peace activists were staking out positions on how they would respond to the impending war.

Clark had little difficulty deciding where he stood on the issue: He saw the Western powers, particularly the United States, demonizing Saddam Hussein in order to "spread hatred and violence."

So Clark lent his support and his office to the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, an assortment of left-wing groups that saw the U.N. action as an attempt by U.S. imperialists to maintain influence in the Middle East. The group refused to criticize Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Moderate peace activists grew uncomfortable with Clark's organization. The dominant group was the Workers World Party, an obscure Stalinist organization so doctrinaire that it maintains the Chinese government crackdown of students at Tiananmen Square was justified.

"Ramsey rushed in with the first press statements," says David McReynolds, the national coordinator of the War Resisters League and a longtime pacifist. He and other moderate activists approached Clark, believing he was being used by the radicals. "I said to him, 'There are a lot of us who need you and look up to you and need your standing and don't want to see you marginalized.'

"And Ramsey's response was, 'Well, I think I've already been pretty well marginalized.' "

Clark refused to detach himself from the coalition or to condemn Saddam Hussein with the same force that he was criticizing the United States.

"Of course the invasion was wrong," he says. "I take that as a given." To criticize Saddam Hussein, he says, would be like acknowledging to a jury that your client is an awful person.

"I think it's not only intellectually justifiable, but I think it's morally correct where there's a great danger attached to what you're talking about to address a single aspect of wrongful conduct, particularly when it's your own country. And if you don't, then you're used in the spreading of hatred."

But why not make that argument without being associated with the Workers World Party?

Clark takes a long time to respond. And then he comes as close as he ever does to expressing anger, which he does by speaking very slowly and clearing his throat every few words.

"If you believe that we're all human, you don't exclude people," he says. "I've had more problems with the people I've been working with trying to exclude people than any others. They don't like to see the LaRouche people. I don't think you can think a democrat with a small 'd' can be afraid of that. If you agree on the issues, you agree on the issues."

But doesn't that reduce one's political effectiveness?

"Society has already marginalized people who will take an independent stand on these things because it will require this level of conformity," he says. "Even segments of the peace movement will require this level of conformity."

RAMSEY CLARK IS PREPARing to leave his office for the United Nations, where he has an appointment with Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Amir Al-Anbari, Saddam Hussein's point man in New York.

Clark is asked about his calls for President Bush's impeachment. It's totally unrealistic - Bush's popularity is so high that pundits are talking about his coronation in '92. But Clark believes that crimes as defined by the Constitution took place and that he is duty-bound to mention it.

"I usually say something about impeachment when I speak, and it nearly always gets the biggest applause," he says. "I don't know why. . . . People feel very powerless. They don't know how to affect things."

In a taxi ride uptown - Clark mentions that he usually takes the subway - he recalls a few stories from his days in the Johnson administration. He is asked about a photograph on his wall of J. Edgar Hoover glaring over Clark's shoulder. He says a White House photographer sent him the photo - but waited until Hoover died.

While Clark waits for the ambassador in the lobby of the United Nations, two men walk up. One of them is a law-school classmate. "I see your name in the paper every once in a while," the man says amiably. He asks if Clark plans to attend to the school's 40th reunion.

"I'm not aware of it," Clark says, and their chitchat dwindles and then stops.

"Great to see you," Clark says, and the men depart.

Clark seems momentarily bemused. "Class of '51," he says to himself. This is the first time it has occurred to him that a milestone is about to pass. home page   
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