For a Politician, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark Took a Road Less Traveled--a Hard Left Into the Hotbed of Human Rights Causes : Loner of the Left
For a man who hasn’t owned a car in 17 years, doesn’t watch television and still wears bell-bottom pants, Ramsey Clark has always managed to keep up with the times.
“I guess you could say I’ve been involved in a couple of things that made news,” says the former U.S. attorney general in a slow, Southern drawl. “Sure, there have been some stories.”
December, 1989: When Jennifer Casolo, a young American religious worker, is accused by Salvadoran officials of stockpiling weapons for rebel troops, Clark flies to El Salvador and helps win her release from prison.
July, 1986: Three months after U.S. jets attack Libya, the human rights activist hops a plane to Tripoli and meets with Col. Moammar Kadafi, voicing outrage over the attack, which he calls a violation of international law.
June, 1980: As the Iran hostage crisis drags into its sixth month, Clark infuriates President Carter by flying to Tehran, demanding freedom for the hostages and criticizing American support for the Shah.
July, 1972: While U.S. Army bombers are pulverizing North Vietnam, the tall, jut-jawed Texan generates international headlines by traveling to Hanoi and blasting America’s conduct of the war.
Outrageous? It depends on your politics. Fruitless? Ask Casolo, who says she might still be in a Salvadoran prison if it weren’t for Clark.
“I can’t think of anyone better who could have represented me,” she says. “He understood me, he understood the situation, and he acted very strongly on my behalf. He made it clear to (Salvadoran President) Alfredo Cristiani what the consequences would be for his country if I wasn’t released.”
To many observers, Clark’s surfacing in the Casolo case came as a surprise, a reminder that the 61-year-old lawyer who was once Lyndon B. Johnson’s attorney general is still alive and kicking. But to those who have worked with Clark on human rights issues over the years, his involvement was predictable.
“Americans may not realize this, but Ramsey Clark is one of the most respected advocates for human rights in the world today,” says John Healey, executive director of Amnesty USA. “He’s probably much better known abroad than he is here. There are lots of countries where he is just as well known as many leading American politicians.”
To Clark’s critics--and there are many--that’s hard to swallow. For some, he is a relic of the ‘60s, and the mere mention of his name produces laughter.
“Ramsey Clark, Ramsey Clark, is he still around?” muses Elliott Abrams, a former State Department specialist for Central America in the Reagan Administration who has bitterly criticized Clark’s actions in the region.
“No, seriously, when I hear that name I free-associate things like Bella Abzug and the Chicago 7 trial. I get very nostalgic, you know, for things that just aren’t relevant anymore. This guy’s a knee-jerk leftist, he’s a fossil.”
Clark, the son of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, shrugs when told of such comments. They’ve dogged him from the days when he first locked horns with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover over civil rights issues, and they shadow him today when he clashes with Jewish groups over his support for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“I’m the same person I’ve always been. I haven’t changed much because I’ve always just tried to follow my conscience,” he says. “People can make comments about what ever happened to this person or that person. I’m still here, doing what I’ve always done. There’s been no change.”
But those who know him best say there has been a profound change in Ramsey Clark. During the past 20 years, he has traveled a path in American politics that is rare. Somewhere along the way, the former attorney general of the United States took a hard left and hasn’t looked back.
Where others might have sought out a lucrative career in law or politics, Clark has continued to beat the drum for controversial, often deeply unpopular causes. As a result, he is something of a loner, operating on the political fringe but still capable of making news.
His appointment book for March, 1990, tells the whole story. Early in the month, Clark will meet with PLO officials in Tunis to discuss legal strategy for the controversial group. Several days later, he confers in Madrid with attorneys who claim to be victims of political persecution. After that, Clark will fly to Grenada and continue his legal work for 14 people who were sentenced to death after the 1983 U.S. invasion.
“Who even thinks about Grenada anymore?” says Healey. “For most Americans it’s long forgotten, unfortunately, it’s off the radar screen. But this man is still very much plugged in.”
If his views seem radical, Clark says, it’s because the world has changed, not him. But even he admits that it’s been quite a journey from the halls of the Justice Department to the shores of Tripoli and a meeting with Kadafi.
“Ramsey’s gone from liberal to something else, he’s been radicalized,” says Richard Snyder, chairman of the board of Simon and Schuster, who published Clark’s best-selling book, “Crime in America,” in 1970. “He’s out there hammering away at issues long after others have stopped. . . . It’s like he’s the last guy in America doing this, one of the last true believers.”
As he sits in his Greenwich Village law office and fiddles with the buttons of an old blue cardigan, Clark seems much the same as he did in 1960, when he joined the Kennedy Administration as a young assistant attorney general. A cross between Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, he stretches out his long, bony hand to a visitor and says, “Good to see ya, good to see ya.”
These days, Clark lives quietly in a two-bedroom co-op with his wife, Georgia, walks to work, and indulges the few passions to which he will admit, including Tex-Mex food, story swapping and classical music. Friendly but private, he looks just like the man who once raised hell in the White House over civil rights issues but never pounded the table to make a point.
The years haven’t changed Clark’s slow, deliberate speech, and his thatch of brown hair is still in place. Long and lanky, he slumps in a swivel chair and points proudly to the busts of J.F.K., L.B.J. and Abraham Lincoln on his bookshelves. A shy smile periodically lights up his stone-poker face, just like it did when he ran for U.S. senator in New York way back in ’74.
“I ain’t changin’,” Clark told voters when he barnstormed through the state in that election. And in one sense he was right: The man who presided over the Justice Department from 1967-68 was known for his staunch liberal views.
But who could have predicted that Clark would one day take on clients such as the PLO, the Berrigan brothers, Nazi war criminal Karl Linnas, suspected Arab terrorists, the Black Panthers and political extremist Lyndon LaRouche?
Who would have guessed that the man who once indicted Dr. Benjamin Spock for conspiring to destroy the Selective Service system would eventually become one of the most eloquent critics of the Vietnam War?
“I don’t know of anybody in American politics who has taken that kind of turn, certainly not anybody from (Clark’s) former position,” says Max Holland, a U.S. historian and journalist. “Ramsey is in the tradition of great dissenters in this country, people who really aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and who turn their back on financial success by doing so.”
To some, Clark’s activism borders on lunacy. Former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell snaps that Clark caused trouble for him four years ago in Nicaragua. The Atlanta lawyer had been asked by President Reagan to help win the freedom of U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfus, who had been shot down over Nicaragua with a load of arms bound for the Contra rebels.
“This man (Clark) told (Nicaraguan President) Daniel Ortega that I was working for the CIA,” fumes Bell. “He poisoned the well for me. Why on earth would you even want to write about this guy?”
For those who know him best, Clark’s relevance is not in question. But even so many years after his departure from public office, his friends are still mystified by one question: Why did Ramsey change?
“It’s hard to figure out,” says Warren Christopher, a prominent Los Angeles lawyer and former associate of Clark’s from the Department of Justice.
“If there has been a change, it’s Ramsey expressing deep things within his personality. But I wouldn’t want to be a pop psychologist about this. I guess you’d just have to take a look at him from the very beginning.”
In 1967, shortly after he became attorney general, Clark was asked how his father had influenced him. He took a long time to answer, finally saying: “Most questions in life have simple answers except a few, and one of them is a man’s relation with his father.”
Tom C. Clark, a Dallas attorney, was one of three brothers who became close allies of Lyndon B. Johnson. Through Johnson’s efforts, Tom Clark was appointed to the Justice Department by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he later became President Harry S. Truman’s attorney general. He was appointed by Truman to the Supreme Court in 1949.
As a young boy, Ramsey accepted the fact that he would enter the law like his politically conservative father. But there were points of friction.
When he was 17, for example, the younger Clark insisted on signing up in the Marines during the waning days of World War II, even though his father wanted him to enter the U.S. Military Academy. Later, when Clark applied to law school, he chose the progressive University of Chicago, instead of Harvard, as his father had wanted.
“These differences grew out of the different times in which we lived,” says Clark. “When my father was growing up, the Klan was still riding. He probably was more of a supporter of the military and the role of government than I was. Our wartime experiences showed that.”
As a military courier, Ramsey saw firsthand the devastation of the war in Europe, Russia and Asia. When he began a law practice back in Dallas, he helped form the city’s first Legal Aid Society. Gradually, he drifted into politics, and, when John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, he told his father that he wanted to join the Justice Department
For the second time in 20 years, Johnson helped a Clark snare a federal job, this time getting Ramsey the post of assistant attorney general. The experience of working in the Kennedy Justice Department had a profound impact on Clark, especially his efforts in civil rights.
Shortly after the Watts riots, for example, Clark headed a federal commission charged with investigating the disturbance. Roger Wilkins, then a young official in the Justice Department, remembers taking Clark to meetings in Watts where blacks described the social conditions which led to the riots.
“He sat in a church for hours, he listened respectfully, he took notes. He seemed to be genuinely listening, and he asked good questions,” recalls Wilkins, whose late uncle, Roy Wilkins, was a former head of the NAACP.
“I can say that Ramsey Clark was the first powerful white man I had ever seen who took poor black people seriously. After that night in August, 1965, I said to myself that I really loved this guy.”
If the rigors of his job were beginning to change Clark, his family life was no less important. Clark and Georgia were married in 1949 and had two children. Tom, 36, has followed in the family tradition by taking a job with the Justice Department. But the couple’s firstborn, Rhonda, was born retarded, with hearing problems, epilepsy and other disabilities.
The experience of raising her has dramatically changed Clark.
“She’s taught us how ignorant we all are really,” he says, his voice softening. “We think we know a lot in comparison to her, and then we look around at Beirut, at nuclearism, and 8 million infants who starved last year. Eight million.”
Clark rubs his eyes and recalls his desperate search for a medical cure, before he understood the permanent nature of Rhonda’s disabilities. He talks of how the family took her to clinics all over the country, traveling in an old, beat-up station wagon. He remembers ugly scenes in restaurants when Rhonda would throw food on the floor, and patrons got angry.
“Once, we took her to Mexico, and the interesting thing was to see how poor people would love her,” Clark says. “They could see that she was handicapped much more quickly than rich people, because they have these health problems themselves, and those poor people loved her. I often think Rhonda would have been a princess in Mexico.”
Raising Rhonda, he says, gave him “enormous empathy for the poor, the deprived and the handicapped, the sense of a need to help.”
In the years to come, Clark blossomed as an outspoken liberal in the Justice Department, taking positions that would have startled his father. But if Tom Clark disagreed with his son’s politics, he never mentioned it. Shortly after his son was appointed attorney general, the elder Clark stepped down from the Supreme Court, citing a potential conflict of interest.
When Richard Nixon was elected President, Ramsey left public office and began the odyssey that eventually took him out of the political mainstream. At first, he accepted a post with the prestigious New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. But it was not a happy match.
Within months, Clark had plunged into the defense of the Harrisburg 7, who were accused of plotting to blow up tunnels in Washington and kidnap presidential adviser Henry Kissinger. Years later, the defendants, who included the Rev. Philip Berrigan, were acquitted on the major charges, but were convicted of smuggling contraband in and out of a federal prison.
“The things I wanted to do were totally foreign to what they (the law firm) did and what I wanted to be spending my time on,” he says. “I couldn’t in fairness continue and do what I was doing.”
By late 1973, Clark had left the blue chip firm and became one of the nation’s premier “movement” lawyers. His clients read like a who’s who of the ‘70s, including members of the Attica prison uprising, Black Panthers, anti-nuclear activists and New York City police officer Frank Serpico.
To some of his friends, it seemed that Ramsey had thrown off the shackles of “public service” and was finally free to follow his own instincts. Attorney William Kunstler, for example, worked with Clark on defending some of the Attica inmates, and said he seemed liberated by the experience.
“Ramsey was his own man, and that made him very satisfied,” says Kunstler. “I remember when we shared a hotel room during the (Attica) trial, and he would cook chili dinners for himself over Sterno in his room. He was satisfied. He didn’t really care about life style or luxuries.”
As his reputation grew in liberal circles, Clark flirted briefly with politics. In 1974, he ran a grass-roots campaign against Republican Sen. Jacob Javits in which he took no contribution larger than $100. Pundits laughed, but Clark raised nearly $1 million and came within 100,000 votes of winning.
“Thank God, I didn’t win,” he says, shuddering at the thought of wheeling and dealing over legislation and forever raising campaign money. “Frankly, I would have been bored.”
After an abortive run for the Senate in 1976, Clark set up a private legal practice. Since then, he has embraced a variety of human rights causes, flying from one international hot spot to another. Most of his activity has been paid for through the fees generated by private clients, he says.
Clark explains his evolution into a human rights activist simply, saying that he has always been concerned about injustice, from the earliest days of the civil rights struggle. Focusing on similar abuses throughout the world, he says, “is a logical extension of that same concern.”
In a pinch, human rights activists around the world have called on Clark for help. For example, moderate Iranians who hoped to influence the Khomeini regime summoned him to Tehran in 1980 to help resolve the hostage crisis.
“We all knew Ramsey Clark, because for years he had worked with Iranian dissidents, he knew Khomeini, and he had shown sensitivity to our problems,” says Monsour Farhang, who was then Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations. “I have immense respect for him. He is one of the finest Americans I know.”
But Clark also has drawn criticism for what some believe are knee-jerk views. Journalist Max Holland, who toured Beirut in 1979 with Clark and other members of a fact-finding group, says the activist lawyer issued a strong condemnation of Israeli policies based on a four-day trip sponsored by the PLO.
“My criticism of Ramsey then was that for someone so prominent . . . that he should have been less of a dilettante. Some of his attitudes showed more of a knee-jerk solidarity, instead of the care that a lawyer would apply to that kind of situation.”
Clark’s persistent defense of the PLO over the years has cost him a lot of support, most obviously among Jewish groups, but that has not deterred him. Indeed, he believes support for the Palestinian cause is the moral equivalent of the civil rights movement.
“I now really believe that the clearest test of our sensitivity for human rights . . . is how we feel about the rights of Palestinians,” he says. “If you can’t be concerned about them, then your commitment to human rights is not universal, and you have a blind spot.”
Those views--plus Clark’s defense of Nazi war criminal Karl Linnas--sparked an angry controversy in the Los Angeles Jewish community in 1987.
Members of the Jewish Federation had invited Clark to be a guest speaker, but withdrew the invitation after learning that he had questioned the wisdom of prosecuting aging Nazi war crime suspects. The issue arose during Clark’s defense of Linnas, an Estonian who was deported by the United States to his homeland for war crimes and later died in a Soviet hospital.
“You don’t go after septuagenarians 40 years after some god-awful crime they’re alleged to have committed,” Clark says. “If you do, then what it really means is, if we find you, we’ll kill you, so act accordingly. It means that we’re going to be condemned to eternal conflict, which is my great concern. We’ve got to find a way to end wars.”
Those beliefs stunned Jewish leaders, according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But others say, with obvious admiration, that they show Clark’s true integrity.
“You have to understand that this man is an American original, someone who really tries to speak the truth as he sees it,” says Victor Navasky, the editor of the Nation magazine and a longtime Clark friend.
“Ramsey believes that everybody in our society is entitled to a lawyer and that every opinion, no matter how revolting it may seem, is entitled to expression. In the end, he really doesn’t care what other people think, or whether that gets him into trouble or not.”
He really doesn’t care what other people think. It’s been a familiar theme in Clark’s career, but the maverick Texan with a radical streak says he only follows the dictates of his conscience. And that’s all he asks of anyone else.
“If you really love your country, you work very hard to make it right,” he says. “Anything else is an extreme act of disloyalty and an extreme failure of courage.”