COLUMN ONE

A Rebel's Political Odyssey

Former Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark's baffling choices in causes and allies, including ties to Saddam Hussein, leave him reviled, shunned.

By Stephen Braun
Times Staff Writer

April 26, 2003

NEW YORK -- A month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein welcomed an old acquaintance. Over coffee, tea and sweets in one of his ornate offices in Baghdad, Hussein sat down for a long chat with Ramsey Clark, former attorney general of the United States.

Few American visitors, if any, spent as much time with Hussein over the last decade as Clark.

Since the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the activist lawyer has met with Hussein five times during trips to Iraq to dispense humanitarian aid and protest economic sanctions.

Their talks stretched on for hours, drifting into tale-telling. Clark reminisced about the Vietnam War's weight on his old boss, Lyndon B. Johnson. Hussein told of the death of his Tikriti grandfather, who propped himself up near the end to feign strength to a rival.

When the two men met for the last time in mid-February, they shared their frustrations about the coming invasion. Then "we shook hands and that was it," Clark said. "There weren't any farewells."

But when the conflict he opposed finally dawned, Ramsey Clark's intimate grasp of Saddam Hussein's Iraq was ignored, his voice a bare murmur in his own homeland. Clark, 75, has been dismissed by U.S. officials and minimized by most American media, reviled by conservatives as a traitor and shunned even by antiwar activists.

Clark's long, strange trip to the margins of American political discourse is a cautionary tale for the committed. He has long followed his inner compass, but he may have forfeited a last chance to make a difference.

He portrays himself as a Texas straight shooter spurned for illuminating hard truths about the U.S. and its role in the world. "Once you say somebody's on the fringe," he said, "it's as if something's wrong."

The son of a Supreme Court justice, Clark ranged the Deep South in the early 1960s as one of Robert F. Kennedy's civil rights enforcers.

As President Johnson's attorney general, he had an orchestra seat on the decade's upheaval. Clark headed a task force investigating the 1965 Watts riots and oversaw the drafting of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. Then, with the nation roiling at the end of Johnson's term, he banked left to become a radical lawyer.

"I'm still fighting the good war," he said.

Baffling choices in causes and allies have eroded Clark's credibility in recent years, old friends and critics say. Some wonder whether his outward odyssey is private penance for failing to publicly oppose the Vietnam War from inside Johnson's Cabinet. Others suggest he is just gullible, or deep in the throes of a young man's unfinished rebellion.

The simplest explanation may lie in the contours of Clark's career. He is, intimates say, a self-made victim of his own willful conscience.

"He's a person who doesn't compromise, a moralist," said Richard Falk, a peace activist and academic who has known Clark since the 1970s. "He sees things as right and wrong and pursues that sense no matter what public opinion dictates. You could view him either as extraordinarily principled or perversely stubborn."

For the last 12 years, Clark repeatedly defied international sanctions against Hussein's regime by transporting aid into Iraq. He openly acknowledges the violations, which risk fines and legal action, U.S. officials say.

As a lawyer, Clark has spent four decades defending the rights of unpopular clients. He has come to specialize in anti-government defendants. His rogue's gallery of untouchables include accused war criminals such as Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, convicted 1993 World Trade Center bombing conspirator Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and fringe figures such as Lyndon LaRouche and the Branch Davidian survivors of the Waco inferno.

Clark said he would be just as willing to work for Hussein if the fugitive tyrant is captured and prosecuted for war crimes. "Could you tolerate the idea that no one would step forward to defend him?" Clark said, his eyes darting angrily. "No, sir, I couldn't."

As an activist, he has collaborated with members of the Workers World Party, a dogmatic Marxist splinter group. Three days after Baghdad fell, Clark joined the group's leaders onstage at a Washington, D.C., protest, stridently urging impeachment of President Bush for "his war of aggression."

But the large prewar crowds Clark exhorted months earlier had shrunk to a hard core of 5,000, barely enough to fill a square-block concrete park near the White House.

"We have to proceed with impeachment!" Clark barked. "Let's struggle for peace as never before!"

But some activist leaders have distanced themselves. Liberal organs such as The Nation and Slate scolded Clark for denouncing U.S. "genocide" while glossing over Hussein's brutal record of torture and mass killings.

"It's disturbing when someone admirable starts sounding like an apparatchik," said Todd Gitlin, an antiwar Columbia University professor and once a Berkeley radical. "You wonder what synapse is missing."

Conservatives have pummeled Clark for years.

"There's a cult built around the idea that America is the Great Satan. Ramsey Clark worships that belief like a religious fanatic," said David Horowitz, a penitent 1960s radical turned rightist whose FrontPage Web magazine has had a field day with "Ramsey Clark's Divine Moral Equivalence."

Clark dismisses them all with a reflexive, dry laugh that spackles his Panhandle drawl. "It's demonization," he said, "putting somebody in the path of the devil."

There is a Texas plains stubbornness beneath Clark's modest manner. Scion of an old Dallas political family, he has aged into a Marlboro Man of the medina. His weathered cowboy's face and gaunt frame are a familiar countenance in war-torn Mideast capitals. His clothes seem plucked from a laundry bag lost since the 1970s -- cheap khakis, denim workshirts and a scuffed corduroy sports jacket.

Clark's dated resume still has cachet. It won him meetings with Iranian ayatollahs and North Korean commissars.

Clark is careful not to offend his hosts. In Hussein's Iraq, he had "unique stature and access," pacifist organizer Peter Lems said.

Even in his attorney general days, Clark was a tactful team player. He could break ranks with Johnson, but "once the president made his decision, he pretty much went with it," said Barefoot Sanders, a senior federal judge for the Northern District of Texas who worked for Clark in the White House.

Clark's former staffers have heard little from their onetime boss in recent years. "Ramsey's a hard man to stay in touch with," Sanders said.

Clark retreated long ago into his movement work and family life. He has few diversions, takes fewer comforts. He owned his last car in the early 1970s.

Television leaves him cold. He prefers "old-fashioned phone booths" to cell phones.

Mounds of books are stacked inside the Greenwich Village condominium he shares with his wife, Georgia. Clark's college sweetheart spent years researching and drafting his legal documents. Now they prize trips to the opera, splurging at Village eateries when they can afford it.

"Some couples might have been pulled apart" by Clark's grinding pace, said his sister, Mimi. "But he's got a wonderfully supportive family."

Their daughter, Ronda, 51, still lives with them. Born deaf and severely retarded, she is Clark's "lesson in love." Desperate for a cure, he once chauffeured her hundreds of miles to medical clinics. Now he takes her on his missions, intent on sharing a world she barely comprehends.

"His compassion illustrates what he's all about," said his son, Tom C. Clark II, who is an environmental lawyer in the Justice Department, the third Clark to work there.

Ramsey Clark and his father, Tom Campbell Clark, were attorneys general. The elder Clark, a law-and-order conservative, was elevated by President Truman from the Justice Department to the U.S. Supreme Court, staying 18 years until Ramsey won his old post.

Clark rebelled "against the grain" of his father's wishes, joining the Marines out of high school. Assigned as a courier in post-World War II Europe, he returned with a bust of Adolf Hitler from the F├╝hrer's bunker and a social conscience inflamed by stark scenes of ruin.

In government work, Clark tempered his idealism. Out of office, his liberal sympathies ran riot. In the 1970s, he defended radicals like the Berrigan brothers and mounted two failed U.S. Senate campaigns in New York.

A stint at running an activist New York law firm foundered. Partner Melvin Wulf found Clark "an enigma," secretive and too proud "to shill for business." Clark went unannounced to Iran, enlisted by the Carter administration to help free 52 Americans held hostage in the U.S. Embassy. He flew home empty-handed, but he had new contacts.

Along for the Tehran trips, Richard Falk was impressed by Clark's willingness to listen to Iranian clerics. But Falk, who teaches international relations at UC Santa Barbara, also noticed Clark's "vulnerability, part political naivete, part vanity."

Clark's lofty lectures on the benefits of American democracy fell flat. "The ayatollahs would vacantly stare out the window," Falk said. "When I heard he was going to Iraq, I wondered if he was trying the same missionary routine with Hussein."

Clark first slipped into Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, denouncing the U.S. bombing campaign for its toll of civilian deaths. "It's kind of his civil disobedience," Tom Clark said.

But disobedience risks consequences. In the last 12 years, Clark ignored international sanctions on Iraq by carrying in shipments of food and medical aid. A Jan. 4, 2001, news release from Clark's "Fourth Iraq Challenge" announced his entourage would "defy U.S./U.N. imposed sanctions by taking supplies to Iraq without licence."

Clark's refusal to seek government permission has marked him as a possible target for Treasury Department investigators.

"If the government wants to challenge my right to travel and bring humanitarian supplies, let them do it," Clark said.

Although the Bush administration recently urged the United Nations to repeal its Iraq sanctions, the measures "remain the law of the land," said Treasury spokesman Taylor Griffin. Even when they are repealed, Griffin added, the agency plans to cast backward for violators.

State Department officials said they have no plans to review Clark's trips because they were seen as inconsequential. "He wasn't on our radar screen," one veteran State Department official said. "He was playing at diplomacy."

Some former State Department officials said Clark has made trouble in his work for Milosovic and other accused war criminals. Clark has questioned the legitimacy of international courts to mete out justice for battlefield atrocities. Clark dismisses the tribunals as "war by other means."

"We viewed him as a black hat," said Michael P. Scharf, who oversaw war crimes prosecutions for the Clinton administration. Scharf said Clark's legal challenges at Milosevic's trial in The Hague have deepened Serbian cynicism and added to "destabilization in the region."

Another former State Department counsel said officials were baffled by "ill-informed" papers Clark filed in a separate war crimes case involving a Rwandan cleric. "We kept wondering: 'What happened to this guy?' " said former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes David J. Scheffer.

Even in New York, defense attorney colleagues shrink at some of Clark's hardened antigovernment clients. Former partner Allen Levine praises Clark but "wouldn't touch Lyndon LaRouche with a 10-foot pole." Radical defense lawyer Ron Kuby admires Clark's "gutsiness," but adds that he has stopped defending Islamic militants since Sept. 11.

Few of Clark's controversial moves have rankled as much as his alliance with the Workers World Party, an obscure Marxist group obsessed with "workers' solidarity" and hailing totalitarian regimes in North Korea and Romania.

Clark hooked up with the party's members working at his law offices in the mid-1980s, Wulf said. When Clark set up his International Action Committee in 1991, he staffed it with party volunteers skilled in the grunt work of protest.

"We don't sit down and philosophize," Clark said. "They're good organizers. What am I supposed to do, kick them in the teeth?"

While conservatives suspect his ideology, some peace activists say Clark and his organizers run roughshod over dissenters. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, said he was banned after criticizing the group's pro-Palestinian rhetoric. He appealed to Clark but got silence.

Clark was deep in plans by then for another aid mission to Baghdad. His small delegation flew in mid-February to Jordan with medicine from Scandinavia and food shipments from Australia. Then they drove 14 hours across the Iraqi desert.

At Baghdad's al-Rashid Hotel, Clark received a familiar summons. Saddam Hussein wanted to see him. The next day, he was driven to "one of the big government buildings where he kept his offices."

The two men had spent hours together. Clark had even cautioned Hussein that Iraq faced "intense criticism" for its state executions. But he never pressed. "I can't try to change the culture," Clark said.

Hussein often rambled on in chats that lasted up to four hours. He boasted about Iraq's electric power program. He prodded Clark to tell of Lyndon Johnson's growing despair over Vietnam. And he described how his grandfather, a Tikriti chief, ordered clansmen to prop him up in front of a hated rival to feign strength as he lay dying.

"That's not the type of man who would just surrender," Clark said.

Hussein was all business when they met for the last time Feb. 23, Clark said. It quickly became clear Hussein was fixated on gauging the strength of America's antiwar movement. Clark said he warned Hussein there was little he could do when war came. Iraq could not "withstand American military might. It would be a slaughter." Hussein took his words in silence.

When they parted two hours later, neither man said "anything about hoping to see each other again, or anything like that," Clark said. "He wasn't betraying anything. I wasn't thinking that it was the last time.

"I'm still not all that certain that it is."