Ronald Reagan's Top Hand

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

America has lost another Reagan relic. William P. Clark, Jr., former National Security Advisor and Secretary of the Interior, died early Saturday morning after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

James Mangold's 2007 remake of the 1957 Delmer Daves classic, 3:10 to Yuma, is a dramatic tribute to the kind of unsung courage Clark used to help win the Cold War. The film is set in the post-Civil War rural west, where Dan Evans, a poor rancher, happens upon an arrest of a notorious criminal, Ben Wade. He offers to help escort Wade to a train leaving from the town of Contention headed for a sentencing in Yuma. At first, Evans's only reason for going along is to earn some money, but despite this, Evans has a certain sense of duty -- to his family, to his land, and to himself.

As Evans was about to leave his home, his wife demands that he tell her why he needs to go on this treacherous journey. Evans says firmly and without hesitation, "Because someone has to have the decency to bring this man to justice."

Paul Kengor and Patricia Clark Doerner have an idea as to who might have been cast as a modern-day Evans. Their 2007 book, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand, depicts Clark as an old-time ranchero who was raised in Ventura County, California. He was taught the importance of faith, hard work, duty, and the rule of law. Clark's upbringing in the rustic, decent West helped form his character: "The solitude, the quiet and the natural surroundings gave Clark time to think, to pray, to develop an interior life."

In high school, Clark was like a sponge for knowledge. He attended an Augustinian preparatory school in the Ojai Valley and "received solid religious formation" where the Augustinian fathers "taught the doctrines of the faith, as well as the social teachings of the Church." Clark's study of papal encyclicals, especially Divini Redemptoris, "left a deep impression on the young man." Clark's heart was stirred after reading Pope Pius XI's sharp condemnations of communism and his call on Catholics to "prevent its spread." He entered an Augustinian seminary after high school, but left no more than a year later believing that "he could fight communist oppression better as a layman."

Clark's fight against communism would be changed forever after meeting Ronald Reagan. In fact, Clark notes that had he never met Reagan, he would have been a "cow town lawyer" and a rancher "like the other Clarks." Providence interceded and Clark began his forty year relationship with Reagan as his county campaign chairman for Governor. As Governor, Reagan made Clark his Chief of Staff and later elevated him to the California Supreme Court.

When Reagan was elected president, he called on Clark to accompany him to Washington. Reagan "wanted people on his team who did not want to be in Washington, who had to be cajoled into the job." The idea of "citizen-politician," Kengor and Doerner explain, dates back to a Roman statesman Cincinnatus who leaves his farm for a time, but then "happily returns home where he continues his duties to faith, family, and community. As far as Reagan was concerned, Clark embodied this ideal of the public servant."

As National Security Advisor it was up to Clark, who would rather be working on his ranch, to "create the foreign policy of the United States." Groundbreaking National Security Decision Directives were developed, especially NSDD-32, one that sought to "prevail" in the Cold War. In a controversial speech, Clark concisely described the new strategy of the United States: "We must force our principal adversary, the Soviet Union, to bear the brunt of its economic shortcomings."

NSDD-75 is another important directive which "aimed at liberating Eastern and Central Europe from Soviet domination." Clark also played a "pivotal role" in establishing diplomatic ties with the Vatican. Clark frequently met with Pope John Paul II and his staff to exchange intelligence concerning the underground movement in Poland and elsewhere.

Writers in the Soviet propaganda paper Pravda virulently condemned the new strategy. Clark was pleased, to say the least.

Although Reagan gave Clark the "steering wheel" to his foreign policy, their relationship was more than simply between a President and a National Security Advisor. Reagan biographer Edmund Morris said that Clark was "the only person in the entire two terms who had any kind of spiritual intimacy with the President." Clark and Reagan prayed together. They were especially "fond of a prayer that both felt typified their role in regard to communist peoples and nations." The prayer is the Universal Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light..." These verses helped solidify their crusade against communism.

Back in Yuma, Dan Evans was preparing to make the dangerous escort of Ben Wade to the train station, he looked to his son and confidently told him: "You just remember that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would."

William P. Clark, Jr. made sure communism caught its train headed for the ash heap of history.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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