by Alexander Wohl, author of Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy
As part of the research for my dual biography on Supreme Court justice Tom Clark and his son, US attorney general Ramsey Clark, I had the opportunity to spend many hours interviewing Ramsey in his Greenwich Village apartment.
So it was with special sadness that I learned of Ramsey’s death earlier this year at age ninety-three. Through my discussions with him, I was able to go on a fascinating tour through history, and get to know this gracious and pleasant man whose deep commitment to the rule of law and individual rights had shaped his life and the nation.
Clark was the last surviving member of President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet, so his death marked the end of an era. But, more important, perhaps, it also serves as a reminder of the role the attorney general of the United States can and should play in upholding our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. That approach stands in sharp contrast to the actions taken by the president during the last four years of Clark’s life, and the men who held the office of attorney general during Donald Trump’s presidency, each of whom used the office primarily to advance the president’s political agenda while undermining the independence of the office and weakening or eliminating protections of the law for those who most depend on them.
As attorney general from 1966–1968, as well as in his prior Department of Justice positions in both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, Clark generally rejected the partisan aspects of the job, even as he understood the enormous political baggage that accompanied it. It was a conflict amplified by the turmoil of the times in which he served and the personality of the president who appointed him.
Lyndon Johnson, the ultimate political animal, at times found Clark’s impractical idealism frustrating. He was particularly confounded by the differences with Ramsey’s father, the more conservative and pragmatic Supreme Court justice Tom Clark, a longtime Johnson friend.
The younger Clark was well aware of the irritation he caused the president (and others). During a meeting with Johnson about a controversial judicial nomination, for example, the frustrated president leaned over to his attorney general and told him, “I wish you could be more like your daddy.” To which Ramsey quickly responded, “Mr. President, a lot of people say that.” Nevertheless, though Clark could exasperate Johnson, the president also greatly respected his attorney general’s intelligence, integrity, and, most of the time, his advice.
But Clark and his father were more similar than their politics revealed on the surface. As I explored in my book, while their political leanings were different—Tom Clark was a conservative who became somewhat more moderate during his lifetime, while Ramsey was a liberal who became more radical—they shared a strong appreciation for, and commitment to, the rule of 1aw.
During his time in government, some of Clark’s colleagues gave him the nickname “the Preacher” due to his expansive theorizing on legal issues and his continuing search for the “right” answer that might combine legal and moral principles.
In both his role as attorney general and in prior positions at the Department of Justice, Clark found those answers in positions he believed represented basic principles of justice. This included opposition to wiretapping and the death penalty as well as fervent advocacy for racial equality—including key official roles in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, government actions to protect the civil rights marchers from Selma to Montgomery, and the desegregation of the University of Mississippi.
As attorney general he also worked to prioritize the development of well-trained police forces and community involvement in policing, issues that remain important today. And, often to his discomfort, his adherence to the rule of law at times led him to enforce or defend government policies that curtailed individual rights, such as the prosecution of Draft protesters or approving surveillance of certain radical groups.
It was largely in his post-government career that Clark gained his more radical reputation as a principled advocate in defense of human rights and the rule of law. He practiced law on the local, national, and international stages, using his standing as a former attorney general to become an outspoken advocate for causes involving equality and justice.
He spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported civil disobedience. One of the first places he embraced this new freedom after leaving the confines of his government position was in the testimony he sought to give during the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven, a role captured in the recent movie of the same name. (Ramsey also ran twice for the US Senate from New York, something for which his idealistic, uncompromising approach was totally unsuited.)
He continued to move further to the left, gravitating to the outer reaches on the individual rights–government power spectrum and providing defense to a list that included Lyndon LaRouche and dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, work that often confounded many of his former colleagues and allies. But Clark viewed this activity as entirely consistent with his earlier work, with both focused on what he described as helping to avert the distortion of the justice system by preventing government abuse of its extraordinary powers.
The focus of both Ramsey Clark’s and his father’s work during their nearly century-long tagteam in American law and policy involved constant evaluation and balancing of the government’s role in ensuring our democratic freedoms and individual liberties against the protections it should provide for the most vulnerable citizens. It is a debate that continues to be a central source of conflict in our society.
We may disagree with the path that Ramsey Clark took or, for that matter, the positions of many of his clients. For many the approach taken by his more conservative father is equally unsatisfying.
And yet the battles they engaged in involving some of the toughest legal questions of their day are a reminder that the struggle to uphold the rule of law and to support our democratic system and the constitutional standards that underpin our society require an adherence to principle over politics.
At a time when far too many have embraced the January 6 siege on the US Capitol as a legitimate action and continue to use social media to spread the lies (big and little) and disinformation that support it, this message, and the work and lives of the Clarks, has special resonance.
Alexander Wohl is the author of Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2013).