Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
July 7, 1991
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.