Catholic World News News Feature
The Pope and President Reagan June 07, 2004
The following interview with Judge William Clark, a longtime friend and colleague of the late President, first appeared in the November 1999 issue of Catholic World Report
The November/December 1999 issue of The American Enterprise (TAE) magazine carries an interview with Edmund Morris, the official biographer of former US President Ronald Reagan. That interview includes the following exchange:
TAE: Was there a particular adviser in Reagan’s inner circle who was the most impressive?
Edmund Morris: Oh, yes. Bill Clark.
TAE: “Judge Clark,” as he was known. He was Reagan’s chief of staff as governor, and later in Washington he was his National Security Adviser and Secretary of the Interior.
Morris: Clark was so private, quiet, and unflamboyant that he’s now largely forgotten. But he’s the most important and influential person in the first [Reagan] administration, and in fact the only person in the entire two terms who had any kind of spiritual intimacy with the President.
A fourth-generation Californian, William P. Clark attended Stanford University, served in the US Army Counter Intelligence Corps, and later attended Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles. After serving as chief of staff to Governor Ronald Reagan in California, he became Judge of the Superior Court, Justice of the California Court of Appeal, and finally Justice of the California Supreme Court before moving to Washington to serve under President Reagan as Deputy Secretary of State, National Security Adviser, and Secretary of the Interior.
Today William Clark is chief executive officer of the Clark Company and senior counsel to the law firm of Clark, Cali & Negranti. An active Catholic layman (and, we are happy to say, a friend of CWR), Clark is married to the former Joan Brauner, and the father of five children.
President Reagan and Pope John Paul II are frequently paired as the two men most responsible for the fall of Communism. Do you agree with that assessment?
Judge William P. Clark: Yes. I firmly believe that President Reagan and Pope John Paul II are most responsible for the fall of the Soviet empire, which had enslaved 300 million people prior to its surrender and dissolution. The two men shared the belief that atheistic Communism lived a lie that, when fully understood, must ultimately fail.
Both men were initially underestimated; observers did not at first perceive their strength of intellect, courage, and vision. But each was successful in translating a personal vision into an underlying policy, and implementing the strategy to defeat Soviet aggression and oppression.
In the case of President Reagan, he first understood the deceptive nature of the appeal of Communism back in the 1950s, while he was serving as president of the Screen Actors' Guild, a leftist union and one infiltrated by Communists. The Pope likewise recognized the evils of Communism in his earliest days as a student.
There have been widespread reports about collaboration between Pope John Paul II and the Reagan Administration-- particularly involving the growth of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Can you comment on the extent of that collaboration? Was there a deliberate political alliance against Communism?
Clark: When Ronald Reagan became President in January 1981, Poland-- the geopolitical lynchpin of Soviet rule in Central Europe, and the largest and most important member of the Warsaw Pact (that is, beyond Russia itself)-- had begun to slip from direct Soviet rule, because of the growing influence of the Solidarity movement.
During his first visit to Poland in 1979, John Paul II--the first Polish Pope--had encouraged a crowd of 6 million Poles to move toward moral, spiritual, and political freedom. So there was a natural convergence of interests, which led officials at the White House to work together with their counterparts at the Vatican. Primarily that cooperation involved the sharing of intelligence information. But No, there was not a formal alliance as such.
We also worked together to generate strong diplomatic pressure upon the Soviet Union, to convince the leaders in the Kremlin that they must refrain from invading Poland--from doing what the Soviet Union had done to crush the earlier freedom movements in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. We in the Reagan Administration were prepared to recommend the use of force if necessary to stop such an invasion after the imposition of martial law.
So to answer your question, Yes, there was a successful collaboration under Ronald Reagan's direction. Bill Casey, Dick Walters, Cardinal Pio Laghi, and I played extensive roles in that collaboration. [At the time, William Casey was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Vernon "Dick" Walters was US ambassador to the United Nations. Both Casey and Walters were active Catholic laymen. Cardinal Pio Laghi was the papal nuncio in Washington, DC. - Ed.]
Yes, the unraveling of the Soviet empire began at the hub that was Poland, and resulted in the ultimate rebirth of freedom in that country and, by 1987, in seven bordering countries. A recent CIA study of this period concludes that in Afghanistan the Soviets lost face; in Poland they lost an empire.
How would you compare the President and the Pope? Do you think they shared common personal characteristics, or a common political outlook?
Clark: The Pope and the President shared the view that each had been given a spiritual mission-- a special role in the divine plan of life. Both are deeply prayerful-- in Reagan's case, without public display. Several times, President Reagan applied to himself the words of Abraham Lincoln: "I am frequently forced to my knees in the overwhelming conviction that I have no place else to go."
These common characteristics became apparent on the occasion when the two men came together at the Vatican in June 1982, to pray together and to talk about life. That meeting, you may remember, came after each man had survived a near-fatal assassination attempt--in two shootings that took place just six weeks apart.
The two men discussed the unity of their spiritual views, and their concern for not only the terrible oppression of atheistic Communism, but also for the excesses of unbridled capitalism. Ronald Reagan never attacked capitalism as such--nor has the Holy Father, really--but rather he often reminded business and commerce leaders that the private sector must act more aggressively to meet public needs, since the alternative is an unhealthy government paternalism.
Both considered the assassination attempts as wake-up calls, driving them onward even more forcefully in their respective leadership roles. Consequently, the world witnessed an increasing courage and action, on the part of both men, in the war of good against evil.
When he spoke of the "evil empire" in one of his most famous speeches, it was reported that President Reagan was characterizing the Soviet regime. But didn't he see the same "evil empire" at work elsewhere in the world?
Clark: President Reagan was heavily criticized by both press commentators and the cultural elite for his so-called "Evil Empire Speech" of March 8, 1983. That was an address written not by the White House speechwriters, but by the President himself. That address said little about the Soviet Union, and a lot about Ronald Reagan.
He had used the reference "evil empire" on prior occasions--including in his inaugural address in January 1981. But in this particular speech President Reagan mentioned God more than 20 times, and included his positions on religious bias and discrimination, the sanctity of all human life, the inordinate separation of church and state, and the need for adult guidance and for sexual abstinence for teenagers. He concluded his address, in part:
While America's military strength is important, let me add here that I have always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs and rockets, or armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root it is the test of moral will and faith.
Anthony Lewis of the New York Times wrote that President Reagan's speech was:
primitive…what is the world to think when the greatest of powers is led by a man who approaches the most difficult human problems with simplistic theology…purporting to apply religious concepts to contentious technical particulars of arms programs. Can the concept of good versus evil determine whether 10,000 nuclear warheads are enough?Of course, the Reagan record later provided an answer to Lewis, did it not? The Columbia University historian Henry Steele Commager wrote that this was "the worst speech ever given by an American president." I would say it was perhaps his best!
As a political candidate and then as President, Reagan steadily opposed abortion. How important was that issue to him, and how did his views evolve--from the time when he signed a law liberalizing access to legal abortion in California, while he was Governor there, to the time when he insisted on the need to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision?
Clark: The Reagan record clearly reveals that no moral issue was of greater importance to him than the dignity and sanctity of all human life. I once asked the Reagan Presidential Library to furnish me with a list of his statements on that issue, and I received a printout of 45 single-spaced pages of Reagan quotes on the subject.
Additionally, I remember being informed that only one United States President has written a book while he was serving in that office, and that was Reagan's Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation (Thomas Nelson, 1984), which had originally appeared in the Spring 1983 edition of Human Life Review.
Ronald Reagan rarely missed an opportunity to raise the issue of human life, with such statements as: "The real question today is not when human life begins, but, what is the true value and meaning of human life?"
And again, in that so-called "Evil Empire" speech of March 1983, which we discussed earlier, the President stated:
More than a decade ago, a Supreme Court decision literally wiped off the books of 50 states statutes protecting the rights of innocent unborn children. Abortion on demand now takes the lives of up to one and a half million unborn children a year. Human life legislation ending this tragedy will some day pass the Congress and you and I must never rest until it does. [applause] Unless and until it can be proven that the unborn child is not a living person, then its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be protected. [applause]
You may remember that when abortion on demand began, many warned that the practice would lead to a decline in respect for all human life, that the philosophical premises used to justify abortion on demand would ultimately be used to justify other attacks on the sacredness of human life, including infanticide or mercy killing. Tragically enough, these warnings are proving all too true.
I believe President Reagan, if informed today, would be gravely disappointed by the many people in both political parties who have attempted to walk away from this predominant issue of his agenda, as they did from the issue of slavery a century and a half ago, contending that the issue had been settled by the court, or acknowledging that it was an evil, but rationalizing that it was a necessary evil.
President Reagan's views on human life were clearly established in a spiritual environment, under the guidance of faithful parents, proceeding through his experience as a summertime lifeguard in Dixon, Illinois, where he saved dozens of swimmers from drowning. Later those views were strengthened by the traumatic loss of his daughter Christina, who died in 1947 only three days into her life--at a time when Reagan himself was fighting for his own life, in another hospital, against viral pneumonia.
One piece of legislation confronting him as new California Governor proposed liberalizing access to legal abortion. The bill became law, following the lead of other "progressive" states. While members of his staff had pointed out to him that the veto he planned would be overridden by the commanding majority of the opposition party in the state legislature, the Governor used the occasion to go into seclusion for a weekend, to study the moral, legal, and medical aspects of abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. He later emerged, saying, "When the subject arises again, we shall be prepared." And he certainly was, as the future proved.
No American has spoken out more forcefully and frequently on this subject than Ronald Reagan.
As a politician, Ronald Reagan always enjoyed tremendous personal popularity--even when he took positions that were highly controversial. Can you explain his extraordinary rapport with the American public?
Clark: I can try. Ronald Reagan has consistently been underestimated. He has also been subject to frontal attacks by outspoken elements of the academic and media elites. But the principles he upheld are now, belatedly perhaps, being adopted by many campaigning politicians. And the public has always loved and respected him, both in and out of office. (In fact, at the White House we often observed that news reporters felt the same way, only to have their editorial departments change the emphasis, tenor, or slant of their stories.)
The American public has seen something very special about him, and the Russian diplomats with whom I dealt while I was in Washington saw the same thing. Ronald Reagan would not vary from the truth of his principles. These were always firmly rooted. Those of us who began with Ronald Reagan in the 1960s, when he first entered government, found him predictable in his decisions. He firmly believed, and counseled us, that we could accomplish almost anything together, if we did not concern ourselves with the question of who might receive the credit. He was never persuaded by--and at times did not even wish to hear--the results of political polls. He would admonish us, "Let's do the right thing, and the good politics will follow." While he often challenged the words and actions of his political adversaries, I cannot recall an unkind word that the President uttered against another person; I cannot think of any personal attack he ever made on anyone in the many years I worked with him.
I believe that the public--which he frequently asserted was far wiser than the government--saw Ronald Reagan for what he truly was and will always be.