For those who knew William P. Clark the news of his death Saturday at age 81 was not only sad but also a reminder that so many of those who helped make Ronald Reagan president, and make his presidency historic, are gone.
Clark, who died after an eight-year battle with Parkinson's disease, had been deputy secretary of state, national security adviser, and secretary of the interior during the first term of the 40th president.
But these important positions failed to define the role Clark had with President Reagan -- his conduit with Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and other world leaders in the winning of the Cold War.
As Reagan biographer Edmund Morris put it, "Clark had Reagan's ear and next to Reagan, was the most powerful man in the White House."
To meet and speak with him in later years, one would never suspect that this soft-spoken father of five had been one of the most powerful and influential men in Washington and previously Gov. Reagan's right-hand man in California.
Bill Clark was ever soft-spoken, and true to his Roman Catholic faith, a man of humility. He rarely gave interviews, wrote no tell-all book, or talked about himself. The only biography of the "the judge," as Clark was always known after Reagan put him on the state supreme court, was an admiring book co-authored by one of his daughters.
Although Clark never saw a Ronald Reagan movie and only a few episodes of Reagan as host of "GE Theatre" on television, the young lawyer from Ventura County became hooked on the actor after seeing him speak on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.
As his late wife Joan Clark recalled, "We turned to each other and said: 'This is it. This is the man.'" The couple promised that if ever Reagan himself ran for office, they would volunteer for him.
Two years later, Clark served as Reagan's campaign chairman in Ventura County. After his gubernatorial landslide election, Reagan tapped him to be cabinet secretary and the adviser who funneled policy details to the governor in the form of "mini-memos."
Most of the names who would be associated with Reagan as he moved from the governorship to the presidency -- Attorney General-to-be Ed Meese and future Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger -- were recruited to work for Gov. Reagan in Sacramento by Bill Clark.
In April 2006, Clark had come to Washington to attend the funerals of Weinberger and Lyn Nofziger, Reagan's onetime press secretary and political operative, who had died days apart from one another.
In discussing Weinberger, this reporter reminded him that his fellow Californian had once been a moderate Republican who backed Nelson Rockefeller for president against conservative hero Goldwater.
"That's right -- but Reagan and I converted him," replied Clark, recalling how they made Weinberger the California State Finance Director in the 1960s and he promptly slashed state spending enough to help turn an enormous state deficit into a surplus.
Clark also shared the genesis of Reagan's 1980 campaign promise to put the first woman on the Supreme Court, which he later honored as president by naming Sandra Day O'Connor.
Clark recalled how in 1971 Gov. Reagan had been suggesting to President Richard Nixon that he fill a Supreme Court vacancy with California Appeals Court Judge Mildred Lillie. She was a Democrat who had been appointed to the bench by Reagan's Democratic predecessor Gov. Pat Brown, but, in Clark's words, "she was a very conservative Democrat, a Jeffersonian Democrat, who disappointed state Democrats all the time. Reagan and I loved her."
Nixon was poised to make history by nominating Lillie to the high court, but finally backed down amid reports the American Bar Association would not give her its highest rating. Reagan felt bad about Judge Lillie not becoming the first woman justice, and a decade later, would in his own way make up for this "might have been."
In later years, Bill and Joan Clark devoted their energies to the maintenance of Chapel Hill, a Catholic chapel in the mountains above their hometown of Paso Robles, Calif.
Those who came for weddings, baptisms, or weekly Mass would sometimes spot Bill Clark in dungarees and plaid shirt, hosing down the walkway into the chapel.
"Don't mind me," he called out, "I'm just the janitor!"
That was Bill Clark -- a man of consequence, with a sense of humility and a good heart.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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