Giving Thanks to God for the Life of Judge Bill Clark

COMMENTARY: The former Catholic confidant of President Ronald Reagan died Aug. 10.

Judge William P. Clark in 2001.
Judge William P. Clark in 2001. (photo: Wikipedia)

Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for the Register titled, “Instrument of Peace,” with the subtitle, “Bill Clark, the Catholic Leader America Forgot.” It was about an extraordinary man that every U.S. Catholic should know about and pause to give thanks for — and certainly not forget. His name was William P. Clark, better known as Bill Clark or Judge Clark.

I shared an inspiring story of a man born in Oxnard, Calif., in October 1931, the son of ranchers and cowboys who became a rancher and cowboy himself. He attended Catholic prep schools and colleges and searched for his place in this world. That search ultimately took him to an Augustinian novitiate in New York in the fall of 1950, inspired by two books in particular, both then recently published: Fulton Sheen’s Peace of Soul and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.

There, Clark entered a period of contemplation and discernment. Should he be a priest? What did God have in store for him? It was an agonizing decision, an uneasy one. He very reluctantly decided that the priesthood wasn’t quite calling him — or maybe not really. For the rest of his life, he would long for that calling, no matter what his great achievements in a truly extraordinary road ahead. St. Augustine said that there’s a God-shaped vacuum in each of our hearts. For Bill Clark, that vacuum took the form of the priesthood.

Clark, instead, opted for a secular vocation, though he ensured it was never entirely secular. He became a lawyer and eventually connected with a dynamic California celebrity-politician named Ronald Reagan. In short order, Clark went from Gov. Reagan’s appointment as an associate justice of the California Supreme Court (1973-1981) to  Reagan’s chief of staff and right-hand man. It was a position that Clark would also fulfill in the 1980s, when he served as Reagan’s national security adviser.

In that position, it was literally Bill Clark who laid the foundation for Reagan’s path to victory against atheistic Soviet Communism. That path took Clark to, among other spots, the Vatican — where he and Reagan met Pope John Paul II in June 1982 — and to many meetings in Washington with Cardinal Pio Laghi, apostolic delegate to the United States.

Clark and his fellow Irish Catholic, CIA Director Bill Casey, had code language they used in case their phones were bugged: “I think it’s time to get some cappuccino.” That meant it was time to sit down with Cardinal Laghi.

It was Clark and Casey and Laghi who were chief liaisons between Reagan and Pope John Paul II. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Clark was Reagan’s most important aide in challenging and defeating the Soviet Union and peacefully ending and winning the Cold War.

Speaking of peace, Clark and Reagan, the Catholic and Protestant, had a prayer they often prayed together: St. Francis’ Peace Prayer. That prayer brought tears to my eyes when I (providentially) heard it Sunday morning during Mass, a day after I learned of Clark’s death at age 81. Two lines in that prayer have always struck me about Clark: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be … understood, as to understand.” That was Bill Clark. When someone insulted him, he used to say to me, “Well, they’re probably right, Paul,” and then would add: “It’s okay. Remember, Paul: charity. In all things, charity.” He was, in a word, understanding.

Unfortunately, it’s the occasion of Clark’s death this past Saturday that compels me to write now. The last occasion, back in 2007, was the release of my and Patricia Clark Doerner’s biography of the man, the only one ever done and which, given his humility, he fought every step of the way. He didn’t want the book to be written. To say it took persuading is an understatement, and not quite right. He was never persuaded. It was simply a matter of prevailing upon him — prevailing, that is, upon his sense of duty to history, to Ronald Reagan and his legacy, to (as always) doing the right thing. And for Bill Clark, the right thing was never about himself.

The first time that I met Bill Clark was the summer of 2001, late August 2001. I was in California researching Ronald Reagan, digging up information that would result in my first book on Reagan. I didn’t yet know it for certain, but that book would be about Reagan’s faith. The meeting with Clark further confirmed that.

I had started researching a Cold War book on Reagan, but I soon realized that Reagan’s faith was the missing piece of the puzzle. I had just left Palo Alto, where I interviewed the great Edward Teller on his deathbed. It was an unforgettable experience, spiritual in a sense — as we talked about God, a subject that didn’t come easy to Teller, a physicist who invented the atomic bomb. After that, I drove to Paso Robles to meet with Bill Clark at his office.

I was told by Reagan insiders that the one man I absolutely had to talk to was Clark. No one knew Reagan as well as Clark, including spiritually. I had heard that Clark was such a devout Catholic that he had built a gorgeous little chapel outside of Paso Robles on his ranch. I wanted to see the chapel. In fact, I said a prayer as I approached Clark’s office. I was hoping that I’d be told he was not at the office, but at the chapel, and I should meet him there. Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

When I got to the chapel parking lot, I met Clark and shook his hand, and he guided me inside. I was a Protestant then, and I didn’t realize until later what Clark was doing. He wanted us to discuss Ronald Reagan’s faith in front of the Blessed Sacrament. We did, and I have no doubt that discussion was blessed.

I last saw Bill Clark last August, about this same time. In fact, if my calculations are right, it was Aug. 11, 2012, almost precisely one year to the day that he died. By then, my two sons were both significantly older and more mature since they had last met him. Struggling to speak through the terrible Parkinson’s disease that cramped his mouth and ultimately took his life, he said to my sons, “Did your dad ever tell you where we first met?” He told them it was at the chapel in front of the Eucharist.

Now I understood for certain.

On Aug. 10, 2013, Bill Clark breathed his last. As he did, sitting in his closet, just a few feet away from his withering body, was something special and sacred to his heart, a reflection of the God-shaped vacuum in his rapidly slowing heart. Hanging there was a long-held friar’s robe, given to him by Franciscan Father John Vaughn, former order general. It hung between a well-traveled U.S. Army uniform and a well-worn judicial robe. But unlike the uniform and judge’s robe, the robe of St. Francis was never worn.

May Bill Clark rest in peace, his heart full at last.

Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

 His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand