….(Judge William P. “Bill” Clark’s) humility was such that he never publicly shared Biden’s off-camera, quasi-apology to him…Biden casually pulled Clark aside in the hallway, away from reporters, and said, “Hey, Judge, no hard feelings…. And don’t worry: I didn’t know the answers to those questions either.”….
“’Governor, Who’s the Leader of Angola?”, By Dr. Paul Kengor, CATHOLIC EXCHANGE, September 4th, 2008
I would like to share a story on Senator Joe Biden that happened 27 years ago. It involved his international humiliation of a good man, and it became a habit for Biden.
I’m referring to William P. “Bill” Clark, also known as Judge Clark. Clark, now 76 years old, living in Paso Robles, California, was Ronald Reagan’s confidant, closest aide, and the single most important adviser in the effort to take down the Soviet Union. He was widely heralded from the left to the right, from the likes of Lou Cannon to Cap Weinberger to Edmund Morris to Mike Reagan to Maureen Dowd. But before Clark could do the crucial work he did for President Reagan, he had to survive confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1981.
Reagan had just succeeded in convincing Clark to give up his California Supreme Court seat-to which Governor Reagan had appointed him-to help him come to Washington to run the State Department. Reagan wanted an “America Desk” at State, someone loyal who could ensure the department would be an asset, not a liability. He needed a second-in-command there to help keep an eye on Secretary of State Al Haig. He wanted someone who was not known as a foreign-policy expert but who was a sure-thing to get things done, to keep order, and to truly run the department. He knew he could trust Clark completely.
Unfortunately for Clark, the post required Senate approval, where, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a grinning Joe Biden was poised to embarrass Reagan’s new guy. So, on February 2, 1981, Clark took questions from the senators, including Biden, who launched into what the Washington Post would call, “The Interrogation of Justice Clark.”
Biden began by patronizing Clark for his ability to put himself through school as the son of a poor rancher. “I, for one, think it admirable the way in which you have conducted yourself in getting to and through school,” began Biden. “I have a great deal of admiration for you.”
Biden then proceeded to express his admiration by placing Clark in the stockade, asking him a series of very specific questions that he knew the Judge would not be able to answer.
“I sincerely hope you can answer these questions,” said Biden. “Let me begin with southern Africa-not South Africa, but southern Africa, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique, Angola and so on…. Can you tell me who is the prime minister of South Africa?” Clark answered: “No, sir, I cannot.”
As the cameras clicked and the evening-news crews started salivating, Biden pressed on: “Can you tell me who the prime minister of Zimbabwe is?” Clark: “It would be a guess.”
Senator Biden then ran through other policy specifics, curiously avoiding the Soviet-Cold War issues that Clark knew well. Biden: “Can you tell me what the major bilateral issues are between the United States and Brazil at this point?”
Here, Biden began inter-mixing his questions with apologies. Biden: “I really don’t like doing this, Justice Clark, but I don’t know how else to get at the point.” And a second time:
I really apologize, Mr. Justice. I know you are on the spot, and I don’t know how else I can do my job. This is one of the most distasteful question-and-answer periods in which I have participated. And, by the way, no one but me, not my staff, suggested that I use this approach… But this issue with regard to you, justice, in my opinion, is not whether or not you are bright. I think you are a bright man…. I have incredible regard for you. I really mean that.
As this went on, Clark’s family, which sat nearby, absorbed each Biden jab like a punch to the gut. “I was absolutely fried, furious,” said his son Colin. “I turned purple with rage.” Another son who was there, Pete, a tough, literal cowboy, intensely proud of his father, to this day recalls how the episode “still hurts.”
In fact, Biden “admired” Clark so much, with such “incredible regard,” that he finished the grilling by announcing that he would not be supporting his nomination.
For his part, Clark was a paragon of restraint and civility, calmly telling Biden, “I respect that position, senator,” before adding, “I just have one point to make.” Clark then explained, as he had in his opening statement, that President Reagan did not bring him on board as a policy expert, particularly on individual issue areas. “Regarding making policy,” said Clark, “I have discussed this with both the president and the secretary [Al Haig]. Perhaps I did not make that clear, or maybe you came in a little after my description of what we consider to be the role. My position will not be involved in making policy, but rather in coordinating and implementing in the position as deputy secretary of state.”
Clark had indeed made that clear, as did the other senators, who jumped in to reiterate the fact. Even the ultra-liberal Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) rushed to Clark’s defense. Biden didn’t care.
The damage to Clark was done. Joe Biden may have been “sorry, Judge, really,” but he had so humiliated Clark that the judge became the laughing stock of the world, as the press lampooned him with headlines such as, “A Truly Open Mind” (Newsweek), “Next Question: A Clean Slate for State” (Time), and “Boning up at the State Department” (U.S. News and World Report). Foreign papers called him a “nitwit” and the “Don’t Know Man.” The London Daily Mirror editorialized: “America’s allies in Europe-Europe, Mr. Clark, you must have heard of it-will hope he is never in charge at a time of crisis.”
Most appreciative of Biden’s performance were the Soviets, who turned Biden’s work into a TASS press release. The official Soviet news agency stated: “In the course of the committee’s hearing it became clear that Clark is not competent.” TASS repeated the examples that Biden had elicited. “Still,” added TASS incredulously, “members of the committee supported Clark’s nomination to such a responsible post… But for all practical purposes he knows hardly anything about foreign policy.”
What the Soviets could not admit publicly is that they recognized Clark was a threat to their interests-that he would aid Reagan’s campaign to undermine the Evil Empire. They needed a way to discredit him. Biden handed (the Russians) a gem of propaganda to employ against Clark-worldwide-and they exercised it with vigor.
The press feeding frenzy abated momentarily on February 24, when Clark’s appointment came before the full Senate, which easily approved his nomination.
Clark stoically took the beating. A devout man, he seems to have seen it as his cross to bear, as some overdue suffering that he ought to be willing to take.
And his humility was such that he never publicly shared Biden’s off-camera, quasi-apology to him, which he told to me over 20 years later. Biden casually pulled Clark aside in the hallway, away from reporters, and said, “Hey, Judge, no hard feelings…. And don’t worry: I didn’t know the answers to those questions either.”
This would hardly be the first time that Senator Biden did this sort of thing. He would do similar things to Ed Meese-with Meese’s wife and kids looking on-when Meese was recommended as attorney general under Reagan, and also to Clarence Thomas, when Thomas was recommended for the Supreme Court. Thomas recounts Biden’s treatment of him in his recent memoirs. There, too, Biden finished the “high-tech lynching” with the same no-hard-feelings smile.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is also co-author (with Patricia Clark Doerner) of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).