William Ramsey Clark is an American lawyer, activist and former public official. He worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, which included service as United States Attorney General from 1967 to 1969, under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He supervised the drafting and played an important role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Civil Rights Act of 1968. Since leaving public office Clark has led many progressive activism campaigns, including opposition to the War on Terror, and he has offered legal defense to controversial figures such as Charles Taylor, Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, and Lyndon LaRouche.
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Hello, my name is Ramsey Clark.
I was born in Texas many, many years ago. 1927, to be exact.
And I went to school all over the place, because my family was mobile.
Went into the Marines at 17, and got out, and got 3 degrees on the GI bill - a BA from the University of Texas, an MA in American History and JD from the University of Chicago, and I really wanted to go on but was married and couldn't afford it anymore. And the GI Bill ran out after 3 degrees. I recommend the GI Bill for everybody, without being a military person, because I'm appalled at the debt that kids coming out of college are burdened with - just when they're getting started. It's really a crime to lay that on people, and their future.
Free public education so you can get a ride until you can support yourself. I think the people, and the government, has an interest in an educated public. I've always favored public schools, I always went to public schools until I went to the University of Chicago.
Well, I went home to Texas when I got my law degree. I was married, we started having kids, and we lived in Dallas, where I practiced law for 9 years. I was a general trial practice, criminal as well as civil, which I enjoyed more 'cuz it's more challenging and a higher public interest in truth-sleeking in that field.
And then in 1960, I got fascinated with then-senator John F. Kennedy. And volunteered for his department of Justice, when he was elected.
I didn't think that his brother ought to be Attorney General. Because I think you need both in appearance and in fact a totally independent Attorney General. Having said that, he wasn't a lawyer in the sense that he ever practiced law or intended to practice law. His interest was public service. And national politics.
So when he was Attorney General, he kind of spoofed himself as being a lawyer, because he never - I mean, most lawyers intend to - you get a law degree generally to practice law, and Bob never practiced law. He worked on Senate Staff as counsel, and then he became Attorney General. President Kennedy chose to nominate his brother for Attorney General, thought he should get a little experience before he went out to practice law.
That was a joke.
But he did work on the Senate Committee until '60, when he ran John F. Kennedy's campaign for president. Then he came in to be Attorney General right at the beginning in 1961, and I became Assistant Attorney General, appointed by the President, at that time.
I was an Assistant Attorney General for 4 years. Throughout President Kennedy's presidency. And for most of the first year of President Johnson. Bob Kennedy left the department in September of 1964 to run for Senate. I flew up with him on the Carolinas, the plane named after Caroline Kennedy. And he left the department the same day that we flew up and he accepted the nomination of the Democratic party to run for Senate, which he won, and remained in until he was assassinated.
So when Bob left the department, President Johnson nominated me to be Deputy Attorney General. And a man named Nicholas Castenbach to be Attorney General. At the beginning of the Kennedy Administration, Nick Castenbach and I were Assistant Attorney Generals, all presidential appointees. And Baron went on the Supreme Court, Nick became Deputy Attorney General, and Bob left the office in September of '64, to run for the Senate, to which he was elected.
In fact, the Democratic Convention was held in an Armory on Park Avenue. We came in from LaGuardia in a car, and there were 3-4 guys waiting on the curb for Bob, and they grabbed him and rushed him off, and there were 2 of us left in the car, so we walked up the steps and around a railing into the interior of the Armory - and as we entered the building, we could hear guys yelling "NOMINATIONS ARE NOW IN ORDER FOR UNITED STATES SENATE, do we have a nomination?!" and we hear "Robert F. Kennedy!" and then a BANG! Nominations are closed. They immediately closed the nominations.
So I did some work in New York that day, and dropped by to see Bob before I went back to Washington. And he was lying on the floor of the hotel room, by Madison Square Garden. He had a bad back, and he'd lay on the floor, flat on his back, to make him feel better. So he's just laying there when I came in and sat beside him. And he said to me "How'd you like that nominating process? Democracy in action, wasn't it?" Because it was a total fix, haha! But they had to think of some guy to say "I second the nomination!"
So after Bob left the department, I became Deputy Attorney General in the spring of '65, and then Attorney General in the fall of '66. And remained until January of '69, when President Nixon was sworn in. President Nixon - at the Republican Convention - said "The first thing we're gonna do is get a new Attorney General." So I resigned at 12 noon on January 20th.
And I've done a lot of other things since then.
I'm here with Victoria from reddit as well as my granddaughter (who helped set this up) to answer your questions today.
EDIT: Well, life is a question.
And we don't have all the answers.
But it's important to pursue the questions.
Thanks for your interest in what my answers might be, and what you're wondering about.
What was Lyndon Johnson like?
Well, he was first and foremost a driven person.
Enormous store of energy. Worked all the time.
7 days a week, he was always working, always thinking 'bout his work. This was during his presidency.
I had the unfortunate position of being the liaison between Vice President Johnson and Attorney General Kennedy, because they didn't like each other. So when they had communication between them, it went through me.
Which was an uncomfortable position to be in, but it was a service, haha! Communication was important, and neither of them felt like conducting it face-to-face.
But it certainly toned it down, and got the word through. It took a lot of my time. I spent better of it, but it was worth it.
Well, Johnson's principal characteristic was he had enormous drive. And he worked ALL the time. He was thinking about work all the time.
He'd call at 3 o'clock in the morning and say "WHAT!? you're asleep!?"
And you'd say Yes, you woke me up!
His job was 7 days a week, and probably close to 16, 18 hours a day.
But he loved it, hehe!
And it made a difference. It wasn't good for family, perhaps, although what you find is that you make a lot better use of the time together when you don't have much time together. So he and the girls and Ladybird were a very tight little family.
And very natural. I remember one night I was sitting there, about 8:30, and Lucy, the younger daughter, came in - it was a week night, and she was probably still in high school I think, probably a senior. And she had something she wanted to talk to him about. And so she started to go back to the door, and he said "You go back now finish your homework and go to bed." And she said "No, I'm going out." And he said "No, you're not going out." And she said "Daddy, it doesn't work that way, I'm going out."
That was an exact quote. "Daddy, it doesn't work that way." Haha!
I don't think there's many people in the world who would've talked to him like that, but his daughter would, haha!
Between a father and a daughter, it didn't work that way. She didn't elaborate on it, just said "Daddy, it doesn't work that way."
Course, they loved each other, but she went out on her date.
What did your granddaughter tell you about reddit to get you to do this?
She just said "Grandad, you're gonna do this, whether you like it or not. Or I'll punch you out, hahaha!"
Could you describe how your view of the Vietnam War evolved throughout the years of your service to both JFK and LBJ?
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, and thank you so much for your service to the cause of human rights and racial equality.
As a citizen, I made one mistake in government, and that is - I worked too hard on the task at hand, on my responsibilities.
And didn't keep up with events that democracy - every citizen has an obligation to keep up with events, like a war.
So when I finally looked at it I was appalled. It wasn't that sudden, obviously.
I remember i had a very close friend named Barefoot Sanders, it was a family name, it meant you didn't wear shoes... it wasn't Indian, I forgot what it was, anyways, that was his real name... he was president of the student body at UT when I got on campus. And he had the best campaign literature I ever saw - bare feet going up walls, around campus, he won in a landslide. He had freckles, which helped.
We became good friends. He was my deputy, until Johnson stole him and took him to the White House.
The point was that Barefoot followed the war. And he was tortured by it. And I was just thinking about what i was doing, in the Department of Justice, but we lived about 3 houses away from each other, so we'd drive in and back with each other nearly every single day. And that was my basic exposure to the war.
He'd be saying how awful it was.
And I was thinking about how awful the Civil Rights Situation was.
The moral is we all have an obligation to be involved in the critical moral issues of our time.
And not get so self-absorbed in some other, all-consuming thing.
Democracy depends on that.
And as a citizen, you do your duty to be aware, and have an opinion on major political issues that must be made.
So I was slow coming to Vietnam. I think I already mentioned that I went down on December the 8th, of 1941, to try and enlist, and I was about 12, might've been 13, I'm not sure, would need to count up. But I kept trying to get in.
But that was just as a kid. Not seeing the big picture wisely.
But then I began to see our militarism as a... almost a government disease.
Our expenditure on arms. Our expenditure on R&D, particularly evidence of loss of humanity. Developing weapons of mass destruction, you really have to be crazy to be involved in developing that. If there's not a better solution, for God's sake, let's all cash in our chips now...
With WWII, it was a situation of good or evil. I turned 17 in December, and went down in January and I couldn't. You had to have one parent's consent. I finally got it. Mother was very, very upset with Grand-dad. He said "The kid's gonna go bezerk if I don't approve." And now it's hard for me to think of a war where I would either agree to sign up, or want anyone I was close to sign up for.
There's got to be a better solution than becoming a part of the problem, rather than a solution.
The problem being war.
What were you conversations with Saddam Hussein like? Not violating any privilege, just general tone.
Well, he was... more interested in the United States than a number of personalities.
He was a prisoner at this time. And so he had plenty of time to think.
And he was quite interested in LBJ. He was interested in President Kennedy.
And we'd talk about... them. Some. We'd talk about him. He started out, he claimed (and I assume it's true) that his first job in Government was very much like LBJ's. Which was - at the beginning of FDR's first term, in the New Deal, trying to pull the country out of the Depression, they formed a bunch of employment programs that would provide for public facilities, and things like that...
Well, he (Saddam) was in prison. I'd met him before, in September of - what year was it- 1990? He called a bunch of people. I remember Gorbachev and the President of France went, and his ambassador called me and said that he'd like me to come talk with him.
Which I did. In October, I think, of 1990.
The US invaded in early January of 1991. And what he was trying to do was see if there was some way to prevent an assault, which they knew they couldn't resist, on Iraq.
But our government was determined to do it.
But he - that was when we established our first relationship, so to speak. I met with him for only 2 days, about 1.5-2 hours each day. And then I didn't see him again until - that was 1990. I guess I next saw him in 1994,1995, I can't really remember.
But I would see him once or twice a year. I didn't go there to see him, but I would see him because I was there (this was always in - there was one time we were at some ranch, and that was before the war, before we invaded. The rest of the time was always in the Capitol, in Baghdad).
His translator was a very interesting guy. He was a pre-eminent Shakespearean scholar in Iraq, and probably in - he was a superb Shakespearean scholar. He wore great big glasses. Very knowledgeable man.
And he remained the translator for all our conversations. He'd take pictures of some of those meetings.
Saddam was very interested in LBJ. And pointing out the great similarities of how they started their careers. LBJ started with an early New Deal program of FDR, Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, I think he was a Texas State Administrator of the youth program - it was done state-by-state, as a program trying to combat the Depression.
And Saddam started out in a very similar program. He was young, and he was picked to be a regional director of a youth program in Iraq.
It was later than President Johnson's time, I'd need to study it to see what years it was, but it was long before he was a significant political figure in Iraq.
I'm not sure how intellectual our conversations were, but our conversations were a lot of common interests. I never had any real business with him.
But for some reason, he liked to have frank conversations with people whose sense of what - they're like, what their countries were like.
And we had - during the trail period - I was one of his trial lawyers. All the other lawyers were furious, because we'd meet, and they'd want to discuss the case, and he wouldn't want to discuss the case, he was perfectly bored with the case, because he knew how it was going to turn out!
So we'd be there in the morning, before trial, and he and I would be talking about something that had nothing to do with the trial at all, and the other lawyers wanted to talk about something to do with the trial. And he was smart enough to know that nothing he said to the lawyers was going to change the outcome of the trial - it was pre-ordained, you know?
He was very human.
One night, one of his daughters was living in Jordan. And she was by far the most active on his behalf. She was almost frantic about trying to help her daddy.
So I'd go and... always go see the daughter before going to see him, because she was in Amman, Jordan, and he was in Baghdad. One night, we were sitting on the couch, talking, and her youngest daughter who was pre-teens, probably 9 or 10 years old, called from upstairs, and his daughter jumped up, and tripped on a coffee table that was right in front of us and fell on the floor, and broke her necklace.
And she said that one day when she was a little girl, her father was campaigning for office. And she fell and hurt herself. And to make her feel better, he took her over to the store and bought her a little necklace, which was the necklace she broke that night.
And... so next time I went into Baghdad, this was during the trial, so my whole purpose of going in there was for the trial, I told him about how it was very stressful for her. She loved her daddy, and how she'd fallen and broken this necklace and how she said he'd bought it for her when she was a little girl.
And he remembered it completely. He said "I was campaigning for office, it was a Saturday, she'd fallen and hurt herself, so I went out and bought her a necklace." But it showed that they're humans, that they have families, that they love each other, that they have these little histories. Of how she got that necklace.
He remembered it exactly, just as she did.
And he carried her on his shoulders out, for the rest of the day, when they were campaigning for something when he got her the necklace - this was long before he had any real power.
How was the atmosphere at Ole Miss when you were down there after James Meredith enrolled?
It was about as polarized as it can get.
I was young.
And you know, I could pass. They wouldn't recognize me as a Fed. And I'd sit and have breakfast in the Ole Miss cafeteria, by myself.
Primarily to have breakfast, probably, but also to hear what the kids were doing.
And these pretty little coeds were using language that I didn't think they knew. And I don't think they were any different than coeds anyplace else in the country. I just think it was just a manifestation of their anger.
They were mad as hell, haha! I mean, here we go - clunking soldiers all over their campus. There were 4,500 students, and we had about 10,000 regular army down there.
The army placed its camps where the agricultural school taught you how to grow corn, or whatever it was.
Ole Miss happened in the fall, so the crops were in... but there were armies still camped there. In the spring.
There's a funny story about military respect for civilian authority.
Monday morning, Sunday night was a bad night.
And there was some shooting. And Meredith was actually in a dorm- people thought he was in the administration building at Ole Miss, but he was really in the dorm. If they'd known he was in the dorm... they were shooting. But that Monday morning, a Brigadier General named Billingsley - a paratrooper - he was in charge of the forces that had gotten down there that night. Cuz there was a big angry crowd - you know, a lot of students at Ole Miss had shotguns or rifles for hunting in the fall.
So anyway, Castingbach and I went over to see General Billingsley. And he was inside of an army tent that had been pitched up for him, he'd spent the night there, I guess. I guess he didn't think, but he said to the Deputy Attorney General Castingbach and I - Billingsley said "What's a DEPUTY Attorney General? Is he a pig, or a fish, or what is he?"
I mean, he didn't say "is he a pig or a fish" but he said "Why are these people bothering me."
And he came out, and was redfaced to see two people from the Department of Justice who wanted to speak to him.
He was a tall, lean, good-looking officer. Billingsley was his name. A couple years before that, I would'a thought a Brigadier General was the biggest man in the world. I never saw anybody above a Captain when I was in the Marines.
what was your experience with Leonard Peltier's parole hearing? Do you think he will ever be released?
Well, I think Leonard's confinement is a great travesty.
I'm an optimist, so I think he will be released, but that's only because I'm an optimist. The probability - depends on how long he lives.
If he reaches 80, there's a fair chance he'll be out. If he reaches 90, there's a high chance. Because prisons don't like to keep senile prisoners.
That's cruel, but that's the way it is.
Did you have any fears about the Axis winning World War 2?
December the 8th of 1941 was a Monday.
And me and several buddies went down to enlist in the Marines.
I must been...12? Heheh. And they shooed me away. Said "Get outta here kid, we're busy!"
But I went back down, when I became 17. That was 1945. December 18th is my birthday, and I went down in early January to enlist. Within 3 weeks after my birthday. It was the Christmas season.
And I couldn't get in. I was a junior in high school. And I had a hernia, so I couldn't get in until I had the operation. I couldn't get in a hospital until about... just before Easter. Because the hospitals were all crowded during the War. I guess the doctors had been moved towards military.
But I joined that summer. When I was still 17.
Now at the time, I realized that the guys who were the best of our class - the ones that were interesting - I mean, this is WWII, where there wasn't any... you know, Vietnam, probably most people questioned not only the wisdom, but the righteousness of it. But WWII, nobody that I ever knew questioned it, because we'd thought we'd been attacked, and they'd want to kill us if they could. You know, Pearl Harbor. That's why I went down on December 8th, to enlist.
I don't think I... thought about them winning. I just thought that I wanted to get in there and fight 'em.
I don't know if I even thought about it. I mean, it was a shocking thing.
Pearl Harbor was pretty shocking, you know. All of a sudden - and we were living in Los Angeles - and several nights, there was anti-aircraft gunfire out. There were 2 aircraft manufacturers, between LAX and Santa Monica, and there were all these floodlights and planes out there -I could recognize planes by their silhouettes.
I remember THE LOS ANGELES EXAMINER came out, and the headline was 9 Japanese planes shot down over Santa Monica. But there were no Japanese planes shot down over Santa Monica. A Japanese sub did shell on the coast. Around Santa Barbara. Didn't hurt anybody, but I imagine they felt good about it.
I have a customary reddit question for you: Would you rather fight one horse sized duck or 100 duck sized horses.
I'll follow that up with a serious question: Do you have an opinion on campaign finance reform? I see so many issues that our elected leadership is willing to deal with in good faith (climate change, inequality, education funding, tax reform etc), and I am tempted to place the largest blame on money in politics for giving power the most rich and powerful who are interested in the status quo (or worse: rent seeking).
I'm a lover, not a fighter.
But I wouldn't like to make love to either, he he he!
This is a subject I have very strong feelings about.
Basically, until you take money out of politics, you live in a plutocracy and not a democracy.
Because money governs.
And if money governs, then you're a plutocracy. That's what a plutocracy is. A government of wealth.
So when we want to be a democracy, we will... take the role of money, and the power of money, which is vast, out of politics.
Even "one person, one vote" doesn't mean much if a candidate has to reach the public costs millions of dollars. They'll never know ya. You might be the most attractive candidate to come down the pike, but you don't have advertising, you don't meet the public, you're anonymous.
Were Milosevic and Hussein seemingly normal people? What does it take to make someone consider/be capable of considering atrocities in the name of governance? Is it Ramsey's belief that these leaders did not commit atrocities, or rather that they did but we're no worse than 1st world leaders?
VICTORIA NOTE: We are breaking this down into separate questions.
They were just about as normal as anybody else.
We tend to demonize leadership of... governments that our government is opposed to. In fact, there is a strong interest in one government to demonize the leadership of a hostile government. It nearly always happens. And it's very dangerous, because if you think it's a demon, you're ready to fight.
But it's very difficult to compare, because you're talking about people from quite different cultures.
And unless you can have some strong sense of the nature of the culture - you can't understand the personality of the leadership.
Well - at its most basic level is that a lawyer's burden is to present the best picture consistent with actuality of the person they represent.
And so you don't sit there and judge them, like you judge your friends, or the leadership in your own country.
They have a right to - it's very difficult to project the nature and character of leadership from a different culture than your own to an audience that's unfamiliar with that culture.
And so a lawyer's burden is to present the best possible picture for their client. And so failure to do that is a disservice to truth and justice.
Whenever a trial involves war crimes or heinous acts of violence towards a human being, it's normal and natural for a human being to be appalled by what they have done, and think of them as evil people, or crazy.
And there's a latin saying that always was very important - Homo sum, nihil humani a me, alienum puto.
I'm a man - nothing human is alien to me.
As a person, I have all the sensitivities of a real human being.
As a person, I share in all human things. Nothing human is alien to me.
I think the harder of the case - the more important it is to present a vigorous version of the defense.
And as a lawyer, I thought it was an obligation.
If you don't want to do it, if you can't do it, don't be a lawyer. Not to put that down, but a lawyer has an obligation to present the best possible case for a client. And it's almost always in a situation of widespread hatred toward the client.
If you share that hatred, you're part of the problem, not the solution.
What is to be considered. When defending. A case in court??
I assume you're talking about a criminal case. Or at least, that's the easiest to make an illustration of.
Well, the first thing you ought to consider is truth. In terms of actuality. Not principles, but what happened. But the controlling issue is what facts are best suited to find a peaceful, non-violent, and honorable resolution to this conflict.
The conflict between the actor and the social standard.
I have a comment and a question! First of all, thank you for standing up to defend people that have already been convicted in the court of public opinion. I’m not a huge fan of Saddam Hussein or former Nazis, but I can appreciate the fact that they should have the right to a fair trial! My question pertains to your involvement in White House politics in the 1960’s and your familiarity with the assassination of President Kennedy: Who do you think orchestrated the assassination?
I remember thinking for years I'll never be happy again after President Kennedy's assassination.
Because the single act of a deranged person - being my interpretation, that only a deranged person would do it - could make you unhappy, then you're making a fool of yourself for life. There are things to be done, you know? Including having a good time. Enjoying life.
And if you let it get you down, it's your own fault.
But i remember I used to have to drive home from the Department of Justice. And I'd go down, over Memorial Bridge. And we worked late at night. And I'd see the Eternal Flame up there... and it nearly always pulled me down a little bit.
But it was reinforcing my determination to carry on.
It's bad enough he got killed. But if it also got down the people nearest to him - then you became part of the problem, not the solution, yourself.
Well, there's something in the nature of things that... makes us want to find some vast evil power that's responsible for things that hurt us so badly.
But that's very deceptive.
That happens, but life doesn't work that way.
And you know, I went through it with President Kennedy, and with Bob Kennedy. I used to see the mother of the man that killed Bob Kennedy - she'd be there every morning I went in. There'd be times that I would be going in daily for weeks, 'cuz somebody was in prison there, and his mother was always there. Every morning i went in, she was there. She was there waiting, because she'd get there, and wait, and wait. Perhaps she'd still be there when we left. Particularly if it was a trial morning.
We had a major trial in San Francisco, where you could see the prisoner in the morning, and then at the trial in a couple of hours.
Not often, but if there was something important to talk about, they'd bring him over and have him talk in the Courthouse. They brought Sirhan Sirhan over, in a helicopter, from the Federal prison on San Francisco bay, and landed on the roof as I recall. I'm not quite sure about that. But they brought him right to the courthouse by helicopter. But i'd see his mother nearly every time you got in there, if she wasn't already visiting with her son. She was visiting him every day.
Which is another piece of evidence that we're all human.
We demonize people, but everybody has a mother.
And nearly all those mothers love whomever happens to be their child.
That's the way the world is. One of the better things about the world.
Can you tell us any stories your dad told you about his time on the SC bench? Any backroom discussion on Brown v. Board of Ed?
No, I can't. Because Dad and I were very close. We had a lot to talk about. And we didn't talk about each other's business, 'cuz it was boring! We always had enough to talk about without talking about each other's business. We talked about our business all day long to other people.
But there's also the general feeling that we both had, that we had better things to talk about.
And that it was not entirely proper to talk about our business. Particularly when I was in the government as well.
Because it would be... from a standpoint of interest, it would be boring anyway. We had much more interesting things to talk about.
But I think we both consciously - it was pretty awkward when I was Attorney General, because I think people thought Oh, there are no secrets between those guys! It wasn't that we didn't have secrets, it was just not something we were interested in talking about. We talk about business all day long, it's not something you want to talk about with your daddy.
We never talked about our government business to each other.
I was in government for 8 years, he was a lot longer. He started in the government in 1936, and stayed in it until he was retired, but he was sitting as a judge, a retired judge, until he died, so he was... but I think we were both aware that it was just not healthy to be talking about your work in the government, because even if you're conscious of the source of your knowledge, and won't take any advantage of it, people will believe that you have, if there's a coincidence, a harmony in action.
But the real reason was that we had a lot more interesting things to talk to each other about than our work!
If you had to describe Kurt Vonnegut in three words, what would they be?
In that order.
I know you were a major advocate for George W. Bush's impeachment. I was wondering if you have followed his art career at all?
Can you tell his portraits of dogs and world leaders apart?
AFTER BEING SHOWN PICTURES
Well, I'm prejudiced...
AFTER SEEING DOG PICTURE http://imgur.com/CJjssNV
First and most obvious impression is that he views dogs as he views people: as aristocrats.
He doesn't have a hound dog in the lot.
They all have manicured nails.
Nice dogs for aristocrats. I wouldn't want to be in the company of those dogs particularly, hehe. I'll take a hound dog anyway, being a hound dog myself.
You remember that song "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog?"
REACTION TO THIS PICTURE http://imgur.com/9kTr7CY
Oh, it's Putin.
Looks like he's trying to show the evil in his eyes.
Whether he's conscious of it or not... whether he's conscious at all... I think he'd be good at caricature.
He sees life in caricature.
What cause has been closest to your heart?
First, second, and third.
Peace involves peace of mind, as well as not killing people.
And peace of mind means doing what you think is right.
Oh my goodness, Mr. Clark. Can I buy you coffee and just listen to your stories for a whole day? Your AMA intro is by far the most interesting I've read. Even your answers below are a treat to read.
Anyway, how did you end up in Syria last month, meeting up with the country's Justice Minister no less? Were you invited by the Syrian government?
ps: I am going to tidy up your Wiki page one of these weekends and try to improve it to good article status (GA-class).
Well, I go where the violence is, and where the problems are, and have for a long time.
So I've been to Syria probably... well...that's where I'd go when Iraq was number 1, when Vietnam was number 1, I went there when I could... I'd have to think about it, but I don't know what the number would be. A few dozen trips, probably.
I travel a lot, hehe.
I have a happy home life, but I travel too much. I travel where the problems are, that I'm the most interested in.
The violence in Syria was what brought me there. The breadth of the human suffering.
You've got 3/4ths of the country in turmoil.
More than that, geographically. No security anywhere.
So in a sense, that's what I've been doing since I left the government. One of the first things I did was go to Vietnam, to the North, not to the South. The main thing I'd do would be to observe, firsthand.
And a part of that is to observe the effect of what we were doing.
So I'd go out during the bombings- and they'd go crazy - they'd try to physically hold you indoors! You'd have to sneak out. Which is interesting - why would they care?
If you wanted to see how it was, I was down in a village, it had been 2 villages, and they joined about 1500 years ago, but they'd been there all that time. Sleeping on a wooden floor about 3-4 feet up on stilts, with hogs slopping underneath me. We went out the next day, and the women - Pearl Buck made a big impression on me when I was a kid, she was a writer who wrote books about being in China. There was one scene I'll never forget, where a woman was in late pregnancy, and she'd gone out and was harvesting the rice with other women, a war was going on... and she started having labor pains, and all by herself, she dragged herself back in a hut, delivers the baby herself, washes it up, cuts the umbilical cord, then crawls back out and starts harvesting rice again... So i went to Vietnam, to the north, during the war.
With Georgia, I went to Paris. They didn't like the idea of my going. So I went later. I went about a year later. And one day, we were way down south, close to the DMZ in the North (I'd gone through Hanoi, flown in on a Soviet plane, we'd joined in Moscow - Sean McBride was with me, Sean was the son of an Attorney General of Ireland and a very famous actress, a very beautiful woman, and he'd become president of Amnesty International and also president of Eastern Bloc's major peace organization. Sean was born in 1903, he was 25 years older than me, and he was the only person to have won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize. So he's the only guy who won the Peace Prize from both sides, which meant he'd been doing something right!
His father had been executed. He was against capital punishment. He was part of the rebellion in Ireland, and had been executed.
So it must've been in 1965, not quite sure what year it was, but first chance I had, I was Deputy, and I bought my Department of Justice out against the Death Penalty.
It created a firestorm - "what's this crazy guy trying to do?!"
About half of Congress thought I was crazy. But Sean showed up within 48 hours. I didn't know anything about him at the time, but I learned before i met him. And he just said he felt a need to come see me, and thank me for bringing the US out against the death penalty, which was unexpected.
And his father had been executed. He was an officer in the Irish Rebellion.
I'd forgotten his first name. But his mother was Maude Gaughan, a very famous actress.
Sean and I went to Vietnam together. He was at least 25 years older than me, probably 30 years older. We flew in on a Soviet Plane. And US fighters were on each side, threatening us, cutting in front. And we landed way out in the boondocks, across a river from Hanoi. And it was a tiring trip, we stopped and camped someplace else, and when we stepped off the plane in North Vietnam, Sean just went down like a sack of bricks. I'd thought he'd died.
It was exhaustion.
And we were about 60 miles from the airport, from the city.
It wasn't an airport, it was a field. We'd bombed everything in sight. They'd have to make a new field every so often.
But we'd planned to spend one week there. And we'd had a peace delegation. They had French, Russian, Irish, American... and 2 Swedish newspaper people, a husband and wife. They were to do the PR and all that kind of stuff.
Sean collapsed when we got off the plane. So we went to the hospital in Hanoi. I spent the week running around, looking at what was going on. And when our time to go back came, the doctors said that Sean shouldn't travel.
So I stayed with him. The rest left.
The next week - I think it was one week, coulda been two - in the meantime, I went and traveled all around. One night, we were in a little village and they had a fish. About 12 people there. And just one male besides me, and 2 little boys. And the man was senile. And this little girl came up, I asked her how old she was, she said 9. I asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she stood at attention, and said "A soldier."
So a couple of nights later, I met with Pham Van Dong, who was the president of North Vietnam. I hadn't known him before. I knew who he was, but had never met him.
We were having this conversation, and I told him about this little girl. And he got very quiet, and thoughtful, and then he said "That's what we don't know. When the war started, I'd studied in Paris, I've seen the world... I had a strong sense of worldly things, and what life was all about. And this little girl was born in war. And every morning of her life has been a war. And all the men from 15 onwards are down South, with rifles, fighting. What's it done to her that she wants to be a soldier?"
Which hit him really hard.
She was quite a dear child, you know. She meant it.
I mean, you ask a question, this is what she thought she wanted to be.
What she was saying was: this was the best thing I can do.
In the world, as she knew it.
So in Syria... I saw the President, I'm not quite sure, but I usually try to see him. The President sure is a... medical person. He lived in London, I think, for about 20 years. Married an English woman, and practiced Medicine. And never intended to even go home, much less to go home and be the head of the government. And he had a brother who was scheduled, so to speak, to take over from the father. And apparently people realized that the brother was too wild. And the father brought the doctor home, from England, to be his successor. So he has the values of a person who was trained in saving life, not taking life.
But when the choice came - do you give up the country, or do you fight - he chose to lead in the fight.
I try to go to Syria at least once a year. And I've represented them at the UN.
They don't have lots of friends here.
They've got plenty of friends at the UN, but not downtown. Not on Wall Street, certainly.
Hi, Mr. Clark! Thank you for doing this AMA. I have a couple of questions.
What events/experiences from your work during the Civil Rights Movement stand out to you the most?
What are some of your favorite memories?
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to pursue a career in law?
Well I don't see the world that way.
What I see is... a long and tragic suppression of African-American rights.
There's no one incident or a group of incidents that could compare to that. That's the tragedy.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was in a conference room in the Attorney General's office with about 8 staff people. And the secretary punched a call into me, I had a phone at the end of the table, and said "Dr. King had been shot."
And I don't think it - I'm not quite sure, but I don't think the death was confirmed at that time.
But within minutes - or less than an hour - that it was.
And I called Mrs. King. I said I was going down there, and I would come by and pick her up if she wanted. And she said that Rockefeller had a plane in Atlanta, that he had offered her, and that they were getting it ready, so Roger Wilkins, Cliff Alexander, and I, plus Deke De Loach (3rd highest ranking officer in the FBI - I wanted him to go because I didn't want the FBI to withhold any information from me) - so we got a little army JetStar and flew down.
And Mrs. King wasn't there yet. So I went into town, but I wanted to be there when she arrived. I went into town, and came back out - I don't think she got there for a couple hours.
And we talked on the plane. And decided that we should just bring the body out, and put it on her plane, and she should take it out back to Atlanta. There's no point in her going into the hospital.
So that's what we did. And I don't know - because Rockefeller's plane was a twin-engine plane, a jet, small, maybe capable of holding 20 people. As far as i know, she stayed on the plane. I don't remember seeing her off of the plane. But I'm pretty sure that I came out from the hospital to meet her. And I think I went back in, for some reason, and came out with the body, and she never came off the plane. We put the casket on the plane, and she took off.
And the thing I know is - there were incipient riotous conduct taking place over town. And I called Buford Ellington, the governor of Tennessee, and he came over, and we discussed things. I think we stayed until after dark. And the same group that came down - Roger, Cliff, Deke and me - flew back.
Deke was actually an untrustworthy guy. His code was to protect the bureau. The second ranking guy at the FBI was an alter-ego guy for Hoover and didn't matter. But Deke was the one who was running everything.
Hoover - for perhaps 20 years or so- had built a strong institution. But he stayed too long. And his operational decisions had become not what's good for national security, or law enforcement, but what protected the bureau.
So we flew back up. And when we flew back, Deke and I came to the parting of the ways. We had a rough time, because I had to talk to somebody from the bureau - and I couldn't talk to Hoover - he talked FOREVER, he was an old man...
When we were flying in, we were in a little army jet. There was a south wind blowing. And I asked the pilot to come up the Potomac, about 12 miles below Mount Vernon was dark. You couldn't see Mount Vernon. We saw smoke. We saw flames over Anacostia. We came over the Department of Justice, and my favorite little Mexican place on 7th street, there were flames coming towards it, and I thought I want to bail out with a bucket of water, and save that little Mexican place!
We ate lunch there quite a bit.
When you find a good place, you treasure it, and i treasured this one.
That guy who owned it wanted me to come back to Texas to run for Senate, haha...
So we were flying over DC, and we saw smoke. And we could see flames just above Pennsylvania Avenue, and around the Department of Justice we could see the streets easy enough, but between 14th and 16th there were flames - that's where Stokely Carmichael was - he was a young African-American leader. And there was a big movement, I think 100 members of the House, signed a petition demanding that I indictment Stokely Carmichael. And I said "Send me evidence, and I'll look at it, because we don't have any basis for an indictment." Stokely's language really riled people up, because he said things like "Burn baby burn." He was a SNIC kid - SNCC kid - Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The 2 big student leaders were H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael. H. Rap Brown was from a middle class family, and the capitol of Louisiana, and he and his brother, they were middle class kids. His brother had the finest private collection of African artifacts in the United States. And Rap was about 6 feet 7 inches, and he could really rap. I mean, he talked and could agitate a crowd. I think there were 100 members of the House that said if I didn't indict H. Rap Brown, they were going to act to impeach me.
And my answer to them was "If you have evidence he's broken federal law - send it to me. You have a duty to send it to me anyway." And the whole thing was jus political. They were just trying to make political hay out of it.
They enacted a statute - the "H. Rap Brown" act - that would have made it a crime to travel for interstate commerce with the intention of committing racial violence, something like that.
But you can't indict somebody just because you don't like what they say.
I didn't dislike what he had to say, either. Just thought he was a bit wild in his choice of words. Rap's in prison now. In New York State. They had him in Supermax, in Colorado. He converted to Islam, had a HUGE Mosque, big following, very charismatic guy in Atlanta. I talk to his wife once a week now. He has a kid who just became a lawyer last year. But he had a very active mosque, on the east side of Atlanta, and he came back late one night, right by a city park, and two deputy sheriffs came to serve him papers. On a minor offense. And he'd gotten out late, 11 PM at night, you don't serve warrants in the middle of the night, particularly to a public figure who's around all the time.
But there's some guy who'd just gotten out of prison in Colorado. And he lived just above the mosque on one of the streets. The marshals were coming up one way, and this guy was going down another, and the other guy apparently started shooting at the marshals.
One of 'em was killed, I guess. I can't quite remember. Maybe just injured, but i think he might've died.
And Rap split.
And was picked up later in Tennessee. And he panicked - that was the term he used. He had a big following in the Black community there.
I knew him pretty well. We served on a board together in Geneva. He was a brilliant young guy. But he was inflammatory. I mean, that was his - if you're Black, you gotta get attention, or you're nobody, so he used his charisma to articulate, and become famous /infamous.
I think the Washington Post ran a quote that was attributed to LBJ that said "Ramsey Clark is so dumb, that if Stokely Carmichael was crawling across the White House lawn with the firing pin of a hand grenade in his teeth - he wouldn't arrest him because there'd be no proof he was gonna throw it."
I don't think LBJ said that. I think that I know who gave that to the Post. This White House guy. He'd been in the Department of Justice. I'm trying to think of his name. He didn't like me. But i never indicted Stokely Carmichael. I thought he never committed a crime.
As far as advice:
Think about it a long time.
A career in law is ... such an enormous spectrum, you know?
It's - I would have many answers, depending on what you want to do in law. If you just want to represent corporations, I'd say get on the business side, because you won't be the head of the company, you won't be a hands on administrator, you'll just be a legal advisor.
If you're going to be in business, be in business. Not in law. Not that business doesn't have to have lawyers. It's just that they're legal advisors. Not hands on actors.
Whereas in some fields of law, you're a hands-on actor.
Basically criminal law. Because the defendant may testify, but otherwise he just sits there.
Hi mr. Clark! Thanks again for your time. You mentioned you have an MA in American History- do you have a favorite founding father? If so, who/why?
Well, I don't do that very much.
But if I had to have one, it'd be TJ, I think. Thomas Jefferson.
And it would be because of the breadth of his interests, primarily.
He was interested in everything, hehe! And he was good at it, too.
Where can you find the best slice of pizza in Manhattan?
Well, for YEARS, at the northwest corner of 6th Ave and 11th Street. There were about 15 original Ray's in Manhattan at any given time, hehe! And as far as we were concerned, it was the original. It was there when we got here, and it was there for many years. Ray was a great guy. His name really was Ray. But now it's a Chinese restaurant.
We alternate between 3 places.
If we're gonna get a salad, and sit down in the restaurant, we got to Patsy's on University Place, which is wonderful.
If we're gonna have pizza at home, which is usual - I mean, it's 4 times out of 5, and we probably have pizza once a week. We either get it at the Southwest corner of 14th St and 6th Ave, which is really good - this is my daughter and I when I say we- or we get it at University Place, on the West Side, between 13th and 14th street.
As an Iraqi, I want to thank you for defending our President Saddam Hussein. He made many mistakes during his time in power but I believe he did what he thought was right for our country. Do you believe any of the evidence presented in the Dujail hearings was fabricated, I have heard some of the witnesses claim people on the list of executed were still alive at the time of the trial?
Well, I don't have sufficient information to believe it was fabricated.
I don't have enough information to believe it was fabricated. But I think there's a real question as to whether it was. That needs to be explored.
And in regards to the list of people, I hadn't heard of that. And I have no knowledge of that.