The following is an interview between National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez and Paul Kengor, executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, concerning the recent death of Judge Bill Clark, longtime close friend and adviser to Ronald Reagan. Judge Clark died on August 10 at the age of 81 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Kengor, who is Clark’s biographer, attended Clark’s funeral in central California. Clark was a good friend not only of Dr. Kengor but of Grove City College, which honored him with an honorary degree in 2011. The degree was conferred upon Clark at his ranch by Grove City College President Richard Jewell. We hope readers will enjoy Dr. Kengor’s thoughts on this fascinating man and life.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: First, can you tell us about Judge Clark’s funeral?
PAUL KENGOR: It was special. It reminded me of the funeral of Clark’s political soul mate, Ronald Reagan. Both funeral services took place high up on California hills in the summer time, overlooking majestic landscapes. Each had families, friends, and dignitaries who thought the world of both men. Each had a long line of cars stopped all along California roads leading to the man’s casket. I’ve been to the chapel at Clark’s ranch over 100 times, but never did I see a line of cars so long that it stretched from the chapel all the way to Route 46.
LOPEZ: This was a chapel that Clark himself built?
KENGOR: Clark built it entirely himself on his own property and with his own money. It’s wonderful. It’s on the same property where Clark almost died on March 7, 1988, when his airplane crashed as he was trying to take off from his ranch driveway/runway. His near-final words that day, as he lay in the smoldering wreckage with the plane ready to ignite into a fireball, were, “God, please help me!” Literally seconds later, his ranch-hand, Jésus Muñoz, providentially came out of nowhere, ripped the door off the plane, and saved Clark’s life. As he laid in the hospital, Clark responded by deciding to build a church on the ranch property. To borrow from Mother Teresa, whom Clark deeply admired, he decided to do something beautiful for God. Or, to borrow from another Clark inspiration, Saint Francis, he decided to build God’s church.
God, in turn, gave Bill Clark another 25 years of life. For the record, Jésus, who was like a son to Clark, was one of the pallbearers at the funeral. Carrying the casket to its final resting place were a tearful Jésus and Clark’s grandsons. It was a very moving moment.
LOPEZ: Who else attended the funeral Mass?
KENGOR: I don’t know if they’d all want to be named, but there were many former Reaganites, Cabinet members, at least one congressman, Clark’s loyal staffers from the National Security Council who formulated the economic war against the Soviet Union, a number of pro-life leaders, and, of course, Ed Meese, who now remains the sole torch-bearer from the original California crew who followed Ronald Reagan to Washington: Meese, Clark, Cap Weinberger, Lyn Nofziger, Mike Deaver. It’s now Ed Meese alone. He was there with his wife. Equally fitting, there were more priests and sisters than you could count. I saw at least a dozen men of the cloth. The celebrants were Father Robert Vera, Father Masseo Gonzalez, and Bishop Richard Garcia.
There was a particularly moving moment during the Communion celebration, when they sang “Be Not Afraid.” Those are words not only of Christ in Scripture but that Pope John Paul II exhorted to the people of Poland in June 1979 as the communist police pressed in. Clark loved that moment. He and Reagan met with John Paul II in June 1982, where they discussed their mutual goal of taking down the Soviet empire. Clark used to tell me that he once heard that no words in Scripture are repeated as often as “Be not afraid.” When Cap Weinberger on his deathbed said his final goodbye to Clark, Clark choked up and said, “Be not afraid, Cap.” These were his final words to Weinberger. So, all of that raced through my mind during the Communion ceremony.
LOPEZ: Patricia Clark Doerner describes Clark as a “hero” in her introduction to the biography of Bill Clark, of which you and Doerner are co-authors. Is that sustainable?
KENGOR: It is. Just ask anyone who knew the man. It’s fascinating, Kathryn, but the night before Clark died, I had scribbled a note to myself. I wrote down the names of Bill Clark, Ronald Reagan, and another elderly friend of mine (John Sullivan) who had been buried earlier that morning. I wrote a reminder to myself that I need to emulate the lives of these men in my own life. They were all quintessential role models. I strongly commend Bill Clark to any man looking for a role model. I promise that his example will not fail you as a man.
And here’s more proof: If you ask Clark if he was a hero, he’d recoil at the thought. This was the most humble and self-deprecating man I ever met. In fact, as I respond to your question right now, I’m looking at the prayer card from the funeral service. On the one side, it has brief biographical information on Clark above the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis, which (incidentally) Clark and Reagan prayed together, and which was sung at his funeral Mass. On the other side would normally be a photo of the deceased person. Not in this case. There’s instead a photo of the chapel that Clark built. That’s his true face.
LOPEZ: You describe Clark as “Ronald Reagan’s troubleshooter.” What’s the best and most underappreciated story there?
KENGOR: There are too many to recount here, but here’s probably the most unappreciated story: Yes, Bill Clark won the Cold War; he was Reagan’s single most important adviser in that effort. But if he hadn’t done that, he would have secured a great victory in the culture wars, against the culture of death. Specifically, in June 1981, Bill Clark, who a year earlier had sat on the California supreme court (appointed by Governor Reagan), turned down an opportunity from President Reagan to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Washington. He had to be convinced to come to Washington in the first place. He didn’t want to die there. So, instead, the seat went to Sandra Day O’Connor. As Clark told me many times, if he had taken that seat, he would have voted with Governor Bob Casey in the monumental Supreme Court decision Casey v. Planned Parenthood, and would have thus reversed Roe v. Wade. I believe that Clark also would have brought along Justice Kennedy with him in that vote, and it would have been a decisive 6–3 majority. If Clark had taken that job instead of O’Connor, all of the media right now would be discussing the death of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
LOPEZ: How hard was it for you to convince Clark to cooperate with the book, to let it be written?
KENGOR: That was the hardest part of my job. In truth, I never convinced him. He was so humble that he had long consistently refused pleas that he write memoirs, and then fought me all the way after reluctantly agreeing to submit to a biographer. He had really respected my work on Reagan, especially from the faith side, and he trusted me. But he was never comfortable with the attention of a biography. The only way I prevailed was by appealing to his sense of duty to country and to Reagan and the Reagan legacy. I told him repeatedly that he had to do the biography for the sake of Ronald Reagan and the Reagan legacy, which was the truth. I would again and again rattle off all the things that he alone knew, that people had to know about Reagan and the Cold War especially, and that would never be told and known without the biography. “Bill,” I would urge, “you’ve got to do this for Reagan, for history.” That worked, or at least worked just enough. He would take a deep breath and sigh and say, “Okay, Paul.”
Funny, I still picture him saying precisely that while driving his car as we went down the long ranch driveway one day, past the chapel and on our way into his office in town. “Okay, Paul. Okay. But I don’t want it to be about me.”
LOPEZ: What did Clark perceive as his calling in regard to the Cold War?
KENGOR: He and Ronald Reagan agreed completely on what needed to be done to defeat the Soviets and win the Cold War. I can’t think of anything they disagreed on, no matter how bold, how daring. They were like clones, politically and ideologically — and even spiritually, though Clark was Catholic and Reagan a Protestant. They were both absolutely convinced that the Soviet Union was evil and needed to go. They both felt a literal divine calling to accomplish that objective. They called it “the DP,” the Divine Plan. Clark would tell me all the time: “The DP, Paul. The DP. All part of the DP.” In fact, when I asked if he regretted not taking the O’Connor seat on the Supreme Court, he assuredly told me, “It wasn’t part of the DP, Paul. Not part of the DP.”
The Divine Plan was for Bill Clark to join Ronald Reagan at Reagan’s National Security Council and lay the groundwork to defeat a genuinely Evil Empire and peacefully win the Cold War. I think they fulfilled it. Clark was too humble to say it, so I will instead. Bill Clark was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon in winning the Cold War. Every conservative and every freedom fighter everywhere should be forever grateful to William P. Clark.