Politics & Policy

Bill Clark, Steadfast Reagan Friend

Farewell to one of the president’s most beloved — and self-effacing — friends.

The men and women who worked most closely with Ronald Reagan are slowly dying. One of the most important passed away at age 81 on Saturday: Bill Clark.

A close friend of the president’s, Clark served as deputy secretary of state, national-security adviser, and secretary of the interior. Before that, he served Governor Reagan as his chief of staff in Sacramento and as his appointee to the California supreme court. The latter service mattered a lot to him, and friends and colleagues frequently called him “Judge” for years afterward.

Few men knew Reagan better, and indeed it was Clark who was first credited with the saying that anyone working for the president should just “let Reagan be Reagan.” Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, said Clark was the “most important and influential person in the first administration” and “the only person in the entire two terms who had any kind of spiritual intimacy with the President.”

Despite his intimacy with Reagan, Bill Clark was one of the most self-effacing of men, and, indeed, he left the post of national-security adviser in 1983 largely because he felt his disagreements with the State Department were hurting his boss’s pursuit of a coordinated foreign policy. But before he left the White House to run the Interior Department, this lifelong outdoorsman accomplished a great deal.

Paul Kengor, a professor at Grove City College who co-wrote a biography of Clark, told me that Clark was almost alone in his support for Reagan’s speech in early 1983 launching the Strategic Defense Initiative, a move that convinced the Soviets they were likely to lose any technological war with the U.S. Clark also was Reagan’s troubleshooter, traveling overseas for key meetings on Cold War issues when Reagan couldn’t schedule a trip to see foreign leaders himself. 

“He did more for Reagan and the conservative cause while calling less attention to himself that anyone else I know,” said Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.

I last saw Judge Clark in 2007, when I spoke for the Young America’s Foundation at their Reagan Ranch retreat. Preserving and passing on the Reagan legacy was important to Judge Clark, and he served as co-chairman of the Reagan Ranch Board of Governors.

Despite suffering from Parkinson’s (the disease that ultimately claimed his life), Judge Clark made it down from his ranch in San Luis Obispo County to the event at the Reagan Ranch. He was in a cheerful mood, bearing his affliction well and happy to chat with me about the Reagan years. “Washington thirsts for leadership, but it seldom gets leaders who simply tell voters the tough decisions they will make, then implement them when they get elected, and then stick by their decisions long enough to convince the voters they were right after all,” he told me. “Ronald Reagan wasn’t special in what he did. He was special in that he stuck with it — and America’s economic recovery and the fall of Communism were in part due to that steadfastness.”

Reagan’s steady hand and moral clarity were ably reinforced by Clark, who was often there during the first term to help the president maintain the true-north course he was charting. “Ronald Reagan loved Bill Clark and relied on him for more than people realize,” former Reagan speechwriter Peter Hannaford told me recently. “What’s remarkable is just how much Bill Clark wasn’t interested in people knowing how much of a difference he made.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.



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