William P. Clark — Judge Clark, as he was known in Washington during the Reagan years — passed away on Saturday. He was a deeply good man and an essential contributor to the successful resolution of the Cold War. The obituaries will tell you the main parts of his story, but on one point all those I have seen so far are wrong.
Noting that no aide was personally closer to Mr. Reagan than Bill Clark, they all say that after serving as Deputy Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Interior Secretary, in 1985 he left government and returned home to California. Here is how I discovered that this last detail — left government and returned home in 1985 — wasn’t true, or at least, wasn’t the whole truth, by a long shot.
It was 1987. I was returning to my office in the speechwriters’ suite after lunch at the Mess. I’d taken more time than usual. As I breezed through the outer office, my secretary stopped me to say that the White House switch board had called. They were holding a number of messages for me. “That’s odd,” I thought, “they don’t normally take my messages.” I phoned them back.
“Oh, yes, sir, quite a few messages: The Queen of England, Mrs. Thatcher, President Mitterrand, Chancellor Kohl….” The list went on, finishing with Paula Dobriansky. In George W. Bush’s administration, Paula became a high profile under secretary of State but at the time she served on the National Security Council staff and was good friend of the speechwriters. Pretty sure I knew what was going on, I got back to her first, and of course she said that she had been looking not for me, Clark Judge, but for Judge Clark.
The point of the story is the date. The obituaries will tell you that Bill Clark was by then two years out of government and four years out of a national security portfolio. But as I discovered that afternoon, every allied leader of note was still leaving messages for him. The fact is — and I confirmed this with him in a chat we had some years later — following his official departure from government, Bill Clark remained very much in Ronald Reagan’s service, as the president’s personal and very private emissary.
To play that role, the President had given him what in espionage would be called a deep cover. In self-enthralled Washington, Mr. Reagan knew, the only thing required to be seen as irrelevant was for The Judge to set up his office at home in Ventura County, California. The media in particular would assume nothing of importance could conceivably happen so far from the White House Complex. But from at least 1985 through the end of the Reagan presidency, if you were the Queen or Mrs. Thatcher or any of the others and you spoke to Bill Clark, you knew you were speaking to Ronald Reagan.