“[L]ife is full of turbulence and conflict, and I never try to avoid either. In fact, I guess I seek them out because that’s where the chance to make a difference is.”
THE SON OF conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, Ramsey Clark rose to the highest reaches of government service as President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s attorney general before turning his back on the public sector and embarking upon a journey that seems to have led him to what many would characterize as the dark side. He went from representing the United States and its citizens to defending and aligning himself with those deemed enemies of not only America but oftentimes of the entire civilized world, those so heinous that they are virtually universally condemned—Nazi war criminals, brutal dictators, genocidal clergymen, and terrorist extremists. Clark has not only provided legal counsel to individual clients in controversial court proceedings, he also has acted as a private diplomat of sorts, speaking out in defense of vilified regimes—such as, Iran, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, and most recently, Syria—while concurrently blasting his own country and pointing an accusatory finger at it for what Clark perceives as hypocritical sanctimony. Who is America to judge? A nation that Clark is fond of describing as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, using the famous words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s renowned antiwar speech delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination.2
How did Ramsey Clark go from admired government insider to staunch defender of the public’s enemy? That is the fascinating and complex question of this book. It is a question that Clark himself has never really been forthcoming in answering. He simply maintains that he has not changed. “Although I like to think I have grown through the years, I don’t think my views have really changed. I fought for the same causes then as I do now.”3 To him, his life path has been fairly steady; he is the same person that he was as attorney general. If anything, society and the issues have changed, not him.
There may be some truth to his cryptic reasoning, but it alone is far too tidy an explanation for what has been perhaps the most enigmatic life of any public figure—ever. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. Clark’s life journey has been like that of a sophisticated yet shadowy Forrest Gump, surfacing in a jaw-dropping array of significant national and international events. Name virtually any controversial historical episode between 1961 and 2017, and the odds are that Ramsey Clark had some connection to it.
Desegregation of the University of Mississippi? Clark was there monitoring the combative admission of the school’s first African American student, James Meredith. Watts race riots? He chaired a task force that examined the aftermath of the riots and authored a prescient report so honest that President Johnson refused to release it at the time. Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965? His involvement was instrumental to the drafting and passage of each of these landmark pieces of legislation. Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.? He was the first federal official on the scene and led the international manhunt for King’s killer, James Earl Ray. Vietnam War? He controversially prosecuted high-profile antiwar activists Dr. Benjamin Spock and Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and he later paradoxically became a leading opponent himself of the war, even traveling to Hanoi to the shock and disgust of the American government and many citizens. Presidential campaign of 1968? He was the whipping boy for Richard Nixon’s law-and-order platform, portraying Clark as a weak coddler of criminals and assuring Americans that they would have a new attorney general if he were elected.
Attica prison uprising? Clark along with famed attorney William Kunstler defended inmates charged with the assault and murder of a prison guard. Campaign finance reform? He ran for one of New York’s U.S. Senate seats and almost won, even though he eschewed television commercials and refused to accept contributions in excess of $100. Iran hostage crisis? Clark was asked by President Jimmy Carter to assist in efforts to obtain the release of the hostages, and later acted independently of the American government in this regard, drawing a presidential rebuke and threats of prosecution for violating an executive travel ban. America’s bombing of Libya? He vocally condemned this action and subsequently sued President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on behalf of civilians who were injured or lost loved ones in the bombing. Military confrontations with Iraq? Clark was at the epicenter, defending and providing aid to the Iraqi people, publicly accusing U.S. officials of genocide, and eventually serving as defense counsel to Saddam Hussein on war crime charges.
Amazingly, these are but a few examples. This list could go on for pages. It seems unimaginable that one man could have participated in so many sensational events in one lifetime, but Ramsey Clark did. And as the years passed, it became ever clearer that there was no issue too hot for him to touch, much to the dismay of even friends and former colleagues. For his choices of clients and causes, he has been called anti-American, a traitor, a communist, a fool, a kook, a dupe, a knee-jerk leftist, an anti-Semite, and a war criminal’s best friend. These monikers for a man who spent eight loyal years in the Kennedy and Johnson Justice Departments, making a name for himself as a skilled administrator, a man of impeccable integrity and honesty, and a reliable and strident protector of the public good.
What in the world happened to Ramsey Clark? There are many theories.
Some contend that Clark just changed dramatically after his departure from the Justice Department. Journalist Josh Getlin postulates that “[s]omewhere along the way, the former attorney general . . . took a hard left and hasn’t looked back.”4 Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary magazine, is more direct and caustic in his assessment, summing up Ramsey Clark’s post-DOJ form of radicalism as consisting of simply hating the United States and being willing to side with anyone who opposes it.5 Columbia professor of sociology and journalism Todd Gitlin agrees: “Any tyrant or war criminal, as long as they’re on the wrong side of the United States of America, [Clark] defends them. And not just in court; he seems to defend their point of view.”6
A common thread in Clark’s legal representations is that he seems to select clients who could aptly be characterized as enemies of the public, or at a minimum, enemies of the United States. Along these lines, one attorney sympathetic to many of the causes Clark supports damningly explained why in other areas she dramatically parts ways with him: “I perceive him as thinking that any enemy of the United States is a friend of his, and I think that leads him into representing people he should not.”7
Although one of the most common critiques is that he is simply anti-American, Clark maintains that he loves his country so much that he is willing to oppose it in the interest of holding it accountable. To his mind, “If you really love your country, you work hard to make it right. . . . Anything else is an extreme act of disloyalty and an extreme failure of courage.”8 In other words, Clark considers himself a patriot, not a traitor. “A patriot should be first and most vigorous in criticizing and urging correction of his or her country’s failures, omissions and wrongs.”9 The supreme wrong in Clark’s view is our nation’s failure to live up to its purported cherished ideals of democracy, freedom, and justice. His personal devotion to these tenets may very well be what drives him.
Clark has on a number of occasions expressed the view that America, as a monolithic whole, has become too obsessed with its military force and its wallet:
America must liberate itself from its love of violence and its love of wealth—which are closely integrated. We are a plutocracy in the purest sense of the word—a government of wealth. . . . I completely reject violence. And yet, at the sacrifice of everything else, America spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on violence. We really believe that might makes right, and that leads us to perpetual war.10
Clark’s disdain and skepticism regarding American government officials is piercing. He believes that there is no level to which these individuals will not stoop. “Anything’s possible as far as what they’ll say; we know that. . . . They don’t know as much as they claim to know, and they don’t tell us what they really know. And they lie.”11 However, such harsh criticism of U.S. leaders by Clark is inequitable. He seems unable or unwilling to denounce his nation’s opposition, its enemies. For example, during the Persian Gulf War, Clark heaped blame on the American government but would not similarly condemn Saddam Hussein for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, only mildly conceding the wrongness of the invasion. He defended his one-sided appraisal by contending that “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 are used in the spreading of hatred.”12
While there has undeniably been a fairly radical shift over the years by Ramsey Clark regarding both the content and passion behind his views, many fail to recall that he has always been a rather outspoken and polarizing figure. Some mistake his service within the Justice Department as signifying an embrace of the system. They forget or else fail to recognize that he was one of the most controversial attorneys general in our nation’s history. Even as a government insider, Clark was viewed by contemporaries as being outside the mainstream, too liberal, too dogmatic, too committed to the plight of the oppressed. One commentator observed that Clark’s “uninhibited idealism and fervent defenses of civil liberties earned him the nickname ‘the Preacher.’”13 John Tower, the Preacher’s home state senator, believed such a predisposition actually rendered Clark “psychologically unsuited to the job of law enforcement.”14
Along the same lines, Clark’s compassionate treatment of black civil rights proponents, including radical fringe leaders of that movement—such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and even the Black Panthers—inspired the wrath of President Johnson, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and much of white middle- and working-class America. Calls for his ouster were common and popular. Holding Ramsey Clark up as the very symbol of what was wrong with America—not enough law and order—was integral to the 1968 presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace.15 Even liberal Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey found it necessary to distance himself from Clark, assuring the public that he too would have a new attorney general if elected.16
1. Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 175 (quoting Ramsey Clark).
2. See Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” (address delivered to the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam), Riverside Church, New York (April 4, 1967); John H. Richardson, “How the Attorney General of the United States Became Saddam Hussein’s Lawyer,” Esquire (February 1, 2007), https://archive.esquire.com/article/2007/2/1/how-the-attorney-general-of-the-united-states-became-saddam-husseins-lawyer
3. Lukas I. Alpert, “Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark Has Made a Career of Defending the Hated,” Free Republic (November 23, 2001).
4. Josh Getlin, “For a Politician, Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark Took a Road Less Traveled—a Hard Left into the Hotbed of Human Rights Causes: Loner of the Left,” Los Angeles Times (February 18, 1990), http://articles.latimes.com/1990-02-18/news/vw-1604_1_ramsey-clark
5. See David Margolick, “The Long and Lonely Journey of Ramsey Clark,” New York Times (June 14, 1991), https://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/14/washington/the-long-and-lonely-journey-of-ramsey-clark.html
6. Robert Little, “Fitting Defender for Hussein: Former U.S. Official Ramsey Clark Has Taken Many Reviled Clients,” Baltimore Sun (December 6, 2005), http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2005-12-06/news/0512060166_1_ramsey-clark-hussein-trial-lawyer
7. Lizzy Ratner, “Ramsey Clark: Why I’m Taking Saddam’s Case,” New York Observer (January 9, 2005), http://observer.com/2005/01/ramsey-clark-why-im-taking-saddams-case
8. Getlin, “For a Politician, Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark Took a Road Less Traveled” (quoting Ramsey Clark).
9. Ramsey Clark, “125th Anniversary Issue: Patriotism,” The Nation (July 15, 1991), 81.
10. Claudia Dreifus, “The Progressive Interview: Ramsey Clark,” Progressive 55, no. 4 (April 1991), 32.
11. Andrew Maykuth, “Standing Alone,” Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine (July 7, 1991), http://www.maykuth.com/Projects/clark91.htm (quoting Ramsey Clark).
13. Josh Saunders, “Ramsey Clark’s Prosecution Complex,” Legal Affairs (November–December 2003).
14. Fred P. Graham, “Clark: Target on the Law and Order Issue,” New York Times (October 20, 1968), https://www.nytimes.com/1968/10/20/archives/law-clark-target-on-the-law-and-order-issue.html
15. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, revised edition 2012), 46; John B. Judis, “The Strange Case of Ramsey Clark,” New Republic 204, no. 16 (April 22, 1991), 27–28.
16. Michael Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 172.