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
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
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
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 Führer'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,
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
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
"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
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."