By Dr. Paul Kengor
Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator.
For those unfamiliar with Judge Clark, he was, simply put, Ronald Reagan’s architect for the takedown of the Soviet empire during a crucial stint (1982-83) as national security adviser.
He had been Reagan’s trusted aide dating back to the Sacramento years, where he was Governor Reagan’s chief of staff. It is hard to overstate Clark’s kinship with Reagan and his role, though no one sought to understate the role more than Clark himself. It took me a long time to convince Bill Clark to let me tell his story, to let me write his biography, and even then I never really convinced him. Unfailingly the most humble man that I (and many others) ever met, he tried to talk me out of the project right ’til the moment it was copy-edited, bound, packaged, put on delivery trucks, and sitting in Barnes & Noble. Someone had to relate the story of Clark’s fascinating life, given that he himself refused. He was the only major Reagan figure who would not write a memoir, passing up a slam-dunk big book deal in the 1980s. He left the Reagan administration at the height of its (and his) power, quite literally riding off into the sunset to his beloved ranch in central California. The ranch was all he ever wanted.
Bill Clark’s remarkable life ended on August 10, 2013, twelve years after I first met him inside the gorgeous little chapel that he built high on a hill outside Paso Robles, California. It was there, in August 2001, that I interviewed him on the faith of Ronald Reagan, which became a book God and Ronald Reagan that he really appreciated, knowing that Reagan biographers had ignored or dismissed this core aspect that Clark knew was the heart and soul of Ronald Reagan. That had started something that led to, among other things, a discussion of Clark’s own faith story. Really, Clark’s biography is inescapably just that—a faith story.
Clark passed away at 6:00 AM California time that August 10, 2013, just as the sun was rising at the ranch so dear to his heart. The 81-year-old had been ailing for a long time—a protracted battle with Parkinson’s disease. He suffered terribly in those final months.
He used to quip, “the good Lord gave Parkinson’s to saints like John Paul II and my father, and now he has gotten around to giving it to sinners like myself.”
Michael Reagan emailed me immediately after receiving news of Clark’s death: “I have lost my father for the second time. Good bye friend.”
The funeral Mass was all so fitting. Held at Clark’s chapel, it was packed with loyal former Reaganites, Cabinet members, Clark staffers from the National Security Council, and leaders from the pro-life movement that Clark supported so earnestly. There were more priests and nuns than you could count. During Communion, they sang “Be Not Afraid.” Those are words not only of Christ in Scripture but those that Pope John Paul II exhorted to the people of Poland in June 1979. Clark loved that moment. He and Reagan met with John Paul II in June 1982, where they discussed their mutual goal of taking down the Soviet empire. At the end of the Mass, Clark’s body was carried out of his chapel for the final time, sealed in a plain pine coffin.
That was the last time I was near Bill Clark’s remains—until two weeks ago, which brings me to why I’m writing today.
Clark and I had talked a number of times about where his earthly remains would one day find their final resting place. He and his family had considered burying him just outside the chapel, which would have been appropriate, or maybe even inside the chapel, or at the very least on the ranch property. But all of these options Clark must have considered too immodest. So, instead, Clark’s body was taken to a very tiny, very remote cemetery a few miles down the road near the almost-nonexistent little desert town of Shandon, California.
And so, I visited the burial site for the first time two weeks ago. And what’s there —or, really, what’s not there— seems worthy of some closing thoughts on Clark’s death.
There can’t be more than a hundred non-descript little tombstones in the cemetery. The front of the place looks like a picture out of the Old West, a mere wire-fencing gate with a red sign that in white lettering says “SHANDON CEMETERY.” It’s just off Cemetery Road. In the distance is California’s Highway 46.
The cemetery is situated on a mere acre of land. It was not even indexed until the year 2000. In September 2006 a group of 15 students from Liberty High School in nearby Paso Robles (roughly 20 miles west), where Clark’s law office was located, did a survey of the grave sites, took photographs, and sought to document its GPS coordinates. They were directed by two history teachers from the school. If Bill Clark was looking one last time to remove himself from the limelight and any attention at all, he pulled it off with great success.
Indeed, I had to search to find his headstone. It was brutally hot, easily 100 degrees, with the yellowish-brown grass as dry as the heat and air. Watching out for rattlesnakes, as Clark had always warned me to do when walking around this area of the world, I finally found the grave.
At Clark’s headstone —aside that of his beloved wife, Joan, who preceded him in death— was a fallen over vase with some dried up flowers. A few inches from that was a Gatorade bottle with some water in it. I stood up the vase and futilely filled it with what water was left inside. That was about all there was to do. There was not another person in the cemetery.
I momentarily thought to myself that Bill deserved more recognition than this, but I just as quickly realized that this was not only what he wanted, but a perfect symbol of who he was and how he wanted to be remembered.
I left Clark’s gravesite and began making my way west and then south down California’s Highway 101. I was in California for, among other things, research at the Reagan Library, where I eventually landed a few days later. There at the Reagan Library, outside the research room, and just a few yards from a giant chunk of the Berlin Wall, is Ronald Reagan’s burial site. It isn’t majestic either. It isn’t ornate. It’s simple and unostentatious. And that’s likewise fitting, because Reagan, too, was extremely humble. It is, however, very nice, polished, prominent, and certainly much more majestic than Clark’s final resting place. It is, after all, a president’s burial site at a federal presidential library. It is not inappropriate.
But when I saw Reagan’s headstone this time, which was not the first time, it immediately prompted a mental comparison to Clark’s. The much-less-resplendent resting place of Clark is absolutely how Clark would have wanted things, playing a remote second to the man he loyally served in their mutual effort to defeat the evil that was Soviet communism.
And on Reagan’s headstone are these words: “There is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
That aptly fits Reagan’s highly positive outlook of humanity. It’s a good statement for remembering Reagan. But it’s also good for remembering Bill Clark. Clark ultimately had a grand purpose in his life, and had a grand worth to his life as well. Yet, amid all of that, Bill Clark always felt himself grandly unworthy.
—Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is Takedown. His other books include 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.