Ramsey Clark (1927–)

One of the most controversial figures in the field of civil liberties litigation, Ramsey Clark is many things to many people. Perhaps to everyone he is a test case for the fundamental principle of the adversary system of justice that all defendants, regardless of the charge lodged against them and no matter how odious their conduct may have been, are innocent until proven guilty and entitled to a zealous defense at law. As familiar as the principle has become, in the annals of American legal history and culture, as well as on prime-time evening television programs, like Law & Order, it has surely been honored more in the breach than in the observance.

William Ramsey Clark, born in Dallas, Texas, in 1927, is the son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and graduating from the University of Texas, Clark received a law degree from the University of Chicago and was admitted to the Texas bar in 1951. Clark was a member of the Clark, Reed, and Clark law firm from 1951 to 1961 and was an Assistant Attorney General, then Deputy Attorney General in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1961 to 1966. InMarch of 1967, when TomClark stepped down from his position on the U.S. Supreme Court, President Lyndon Johnson namedClark’s son, Ramsey,Attorney General of the United States.

Contemporary critics of Clark from the left of the American political spectrum look back on his two years as Attorney General as a time when the radical lawyer showed his true colors. He admired J. Edgar Hoover, they allege, instructed the F. B. I. to look for conspiratorial designs in the 1967 race riots in Watts and Newark, and in 1968 was still a sufficient supporter of the Vietnam War to be willing to prosecute Dr. Benjamin Spock and Yale’s Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., for conspiring to promote illegal resistance to the draft. But Clark’s prosecution of the case may not have reflected his deepest political values and commitments. After all, the attorney for Coffin, Hale and Door’s James St. Clair, later represented a cornered President Richard Nixon and was himself criticized by Yale’s chaplain for being, in the draft resistance litigation, ‘‘all case and no cause.’’ The Boston Globe heralded St. Clair for ‘‘accepting clients from across the ideological spectrum.’’ If Clark’s legal career is assessed as a whole, the same could easily be said of him, and in praise rather than criticism, so long as one buys into the central claims of an adversary legal process.

At the same time, some of Clark’s supporters point out that he supervised U.S. Marshals when they were sent to Oxford, Mississippi, ensuring the enrollment of James Meredith at the University, helped write and secure passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and famously sought to block J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretaps of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Assuming one regards the civil rights movement of the 1960s as part of the legacy of progressive politics, it is hard to understand Salon writer Ian Williams claim that Clark’s ‘‘long march leftward only began afterward,’’ after, that is, Clark’s tenure as Attorney General.

Generally omitted from Clark balance sheets drawn up by friends, as well as enemies, would be an entry for one of his most interesting confrontations as Attorney General—with none other than the infamous Howard Hughes. As part of an elaborate scheme to take over the gaming industry in Las Vegas, Hughes had presented his chief aid, Robert Maheu, with a blueprint for further acquisition of land, hotels, casinos, and so forth. After closing its casino and operating the Bonanza exclusively as a hotel, thus obviating the need to secure a gaming license, Hughes would then purchase the Silver Slipper and the Stardust, all the while retaining an option to buy the Silver Nugget. With public support from Las Vegas newspaperman and power broker, H. M. ‘Hank’’ Greenspun, Hughes and Maheu were confident they could win gambling licenses from Nevada authorities for the Stardust and Silver Slipper. But Hughes’ scheme went awry when U.S. Justice Department lawyers intervened and threatened to initiate antitrust litigation against Hughes if he persisted in his plan to buy the Stardust.

While an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division sent Clark a memo stating that Hughes would drive undesirable elements out of Las Vegas and suggested that F.B.I. Director Hoover looked favorably on Hughes’ expansion in Nevada, the Antitrust Division would not budge and their boss, Attorney General Clark, backed them up. Maheu then appealed to Nevada’s two U.S. Senators and then-Governor Laxalt who promptly wrote Clark a letter warning of ‘‘permanent damage’’ to Nevada’s economy if Hughes’ acquisition plans were frustrated. But it was ‘‘to no avail,’’ according to Hughes biographers Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Ramsey Clark, they report, ‘‘stood firm. When Hughes realized that the federal government fully intended to sue him, he caved in and withdrew his offer for the Stardust.’’ Barlett and Steele go so far as to assert that this ‘‘was one of the very few times in a career distinguished by harmonious relations with government agencies that Howard Hughes had been thwarted.’’ Things would soon change, they observe wryly, with the inauguration of President Richard Nixon.

With the Republicans back in power, Clark joined the antiwar movement and would make a controversial visit to North Vietnam in 1972. Two years later, he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York (losing out to antiwar Republican, Jacob Javits) and has subsequently devoted himself to providing legal advice to a wide range of public figures and organizations. His clients have included David Koresh of the ill-starred Branch Davidian Church; Native-American political activist and federal penitentiary resident, Leonard Peltier; right-wing conspiracy theorist and demagogue, Lyndon LaRouche; a leader of the Rwandan genocide; former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic; the Palestine Liberation Organization; Father Philip Berrigan and the Harrisburg Six (prosecuted for allegedly planning to kidnap Henry Kissinger and try him for war crimes); Sheik Omar Abd El-Rahman, the ‘‘Blind’’ Sheik, convicted of participating in the first World Trade Center bombing; and Lori Berenson, an American woman jailed in Peru for alleged contacts with the Tupac Amaru radical movement.

It would be interesting to compare the hostility with which Ramsey Clark’s representation of unpopular clients has occasionally been greeted with that directed, for example, toward Harvard professor, Alan Dershowitz, for his representation of O. J. Simpson, Leona Helmsley, and Klaus von Bulow; or William Kunstler, whose clients included H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, El Sayyid Nosair, and Malcolm X. Indeed, with respect to the American Indian Movement and Islamic fundamentalists accused of terrorism in the U.S., Kunstler and Clark shared some of the same clients. Kunstler, it will be recalled, ‘‘was respected for his belief in justice and his commitment to the rights of the defendant,’’ as ABC’s Peter Jennings put it in his on-air report of Kunstler’s death; the courageous defender of the ‘‘underdog’’ had even been granted a starring role in one episode of Law & Order, with a script written virtually to marquee Kunstler’s view of the Constitution. Perhaps unlike Kunstler, however, Ramsey Clark’s politics, his choice of clients, something, seem to have placed him beyond the pale for many commentators on the legal scene.

In one of the sharpest interrogations of Clark’s conduct, Ian Williams argues that in 1998, ‘‘Clark attended a human rights conference in Baghdad, Iraq, where in his keynote speech he pointed out how ‘the governments of the rich nations’ . . . dominated the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which showed ‘little concern for economic, social, and cultural rights.’’’ Williams may feel he has thus demonstrated with this example the hypocritical relationship between Clark and his presumed ‘‘Kunstleresque’’ stature as a defender of individual rights and civil liberties. But unless Clark is dishonest for saying what he said where he said it, then it is a statement with which it is hard to disagree.

First, consider Harold Laski’s observation that the gap between liberalism’s promises and performance has always been wide. Any hopeful promises ‘‘governments of the rich nations’’ have made to the rest of the countries of the world have rarely been kept; certainly not kept in a way that would change significantly the quality of life for the world’s poor. From promises of safety against tyrannical regimes and marauding armies, guarantees against the ravages of hunger and disease, to promises of debt reduction or curtailment of agricultural subsidies to developed economies, the rich nations have generally turned a blind eye to the human catastrophe endured day in and day out by the wretched of the earth.

Second, one need only recall Anatole France’s famous aphorism about the law, which in its majesty, prohibits the rich as well as the poor from sleeping beneath the bridges of Paris. Human rights proclaimed by middle class revolution and Western cultural tradition are often of little use to the great mass of people living on earth today, and this sad irony has become so well worn that by now it seems almost pointless to repeat it. That Ramsey Clark is willing to do so, in Baghdad or anywhere else, seems less evidence of devious character or fatal inconsistency than an almost Pollyannaish willingness to maintain faith in the prospect of real social change. How can anyone have confidence in the future, with so little accomplished, these many years after France’s skewering of a purely formal equality before the law? In Dickens’ Hard Times, a working class schoolgirl is asked if she is not pleased to be living in such a thriving and prosperous state as Britain. Her instructor is horrified when she responds she would have to know, first, who had got the money and whether or not any of it was hers. Again, Dickens was writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. Comments along these same lines by Ramsey Clark are long overdue, and criticizing him for making them in Baghdad is as silly as castigating Bill Clinton, not for having protested the Vietnam but for having done so at Oxford.

No criticism of Ramsey Clark is heard more frequently than that he does not simply provide legal representation for his clients but, goes further, and offers support for their politics and apologies for their alleged misdeeds. He cannot seem to separate out the legal value of zealous advocacy, central to the system, from the dangerous assault on liberal values many of his clients perpetrate, on the very margins or fringes of the system. Nevertheless, in the summer of 2005, Clark was the target of a very different kind of attack. The Associated Press reported that ‘‘Saddam Hussein’s chief lawyer quit the Iraqi dictator’s Jordanbased legal team’’ because ‘‘some of the team’s American members were trying to control the defense and tone down his criticism of the U.S. presence in Iraq.’’ The attorney specifically rejected Ramsey Clark’s defense strategy, saying that Clark ‘‘had often asked me to refrain from criticizing the American occupation of Iraq and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.’’ No one would claim that Ramsey Clark ‘‘is all case and no cause.’’ But, perhaps Clark simply appreciates that different degrees of identification with clients can be appropriate depending upon the circumstances of individual cases. Unlike his politics, Clark, like most lawyers, is unlikely to share his defense strategy with reporters.

Ariah Naier, once the leader and, arguably, moral conscience of the American Civil Liberties Union, defended the constitutional rights of bedraggled remnants of wartime fascism and obnoxious new Nazi skin heads who demonstrated publicly in Skokie, Illinois, despite the offense thus given to many in the Chicago Jewish community, including some survivors of the Holocaust and many more relatives of those who did not survive. What could protecting the rights of thugs whose hatred for rights is notorious have to do with civil liberty? Naier was often asked this question by deeply perplexed supporters of his values and his organization. It is a hard question, appropriately directed at Ariah Naier and his comrades in the cause of civil liberty, as well as at Ramsey Clark and his colleagues in the legal profession. When prominent Massachusetts attorney John Adams was asked to provide legal representation for soldiers who fired on unruly citizen-rebels in what was called the ‘‘Boston Massacre,’’ Adams did not hesitate. What, he wondered, could be more important to the citizen of a democracy than the right to a lawyer? For better or for worse, Ramsey Clark continues to answer that question in ways not very different from early American patriot John Adams of Boston.

ANTHONY CHASE

References and Further Reading

  • Barlett, Donald L., and Steele, James B. Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.
  • ‘‘Top Hussein Lawyer Quits, Chides U.S.’’ USA Today, July 7, 2005.
  • Williams, Ian. ‘‘Ramsey Clark: The War Criminal’s Best Friend’’ (Salon.com, June 21, 1999).

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