“The greatest crime since World War II has been U.S. foreign policy.”—Ramsey Clark
By Bruce Poli
Ask me why I live in the West Village, and I might say, “Because people like Ramsey Clark live here.”
Considered one of America’s most liberal Attorney Generals, Ramsey Clark, who served in the Department of Justice during the Kennedy and Johnson eras, is perhaps the antithesis of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions in style, policy, and most importantly, character. He cares and he cares deeply, even today, nearly half a century after leaving Washington.
Clark’s era of compassion in government reminds us that it wasn’t always open warfare between the public and the government. America was actually defended and enhanced by its representatives in Washington.
In fact, the Johnson administration is now considered the gold standard for good, progressive domestic leadership.
In his recent book, Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House, Joshua M. Zeitz posits that the greatest legacy threatened to be erased by the Trump administration is not Barack Obama’s, but Lyndon Johnson’s. Ramsey Clark is a pillar of that legacy. He supervised the drafting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
So deeply committed to justice was Ramsey that he had the audacity and chutzpa to represent not only Saddam Hussein, but also Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia’s warlord Charles Taylor in their War Crimes Tribunal trials. He did so against all odds and with the great wrath of much of the American public and politicians.
At 90, Clark lives quietly in the West Village. He has been here since leaving D.C. in the early 1970s—almost completely removed and nearly erased from memory in the Trumpification of America.
But Clark’s opinions matter. He represents the golden age of democratic law, even while the country was erupting with assassinations, street fighting, violence, and, of course, the Vietnam War. He was America’s top law enforcer in the critical year of 1968—the turning point of American politics.
In 1961, Clark, purportedly, was highly placed in JFK’s Justice Department in order to become Attorney General (AG) under Johnson, from 1967 to 1969. His father, Tom Clark was Harry Truman’s AG. The story of their influence, Father, Son and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy by Alexander Wohl was published in 2013 by the University Press of Kansas.
I recently handed him Jill Freedman’s documentary photography book Resurrection City to Ramsey Clark. (It chronicles the Poor People’s March of 1968.)
“Oh, I remember this well,” he said. “I let a lot of the demonstrators into my office and everyone at Justice was saying ‘What the Hell is Clark doing?’”
“A big black woman was standing over me, wagging her finger at me. She was angry.”
“But she was right wasn’t she?” I asked.
“Sure was,” he answered in his distinct Texan drawl.
“How do we survive this onslaught in the Trump era?” I asked.
“We just have to let it take its course. That’s part of democracy,” he responded.
Last year, when seeing Ramsey Clark sitting in a wheelchair on a lonely West Village sidewalk, I thought, “My God, this man’s been forgotten.”
Part two of this article will appear in the April 2018 issue of WestView.