By Bruce Poli
“The measure of your quality as a public person, as a citizen, is the gap between what you do and what you say.”
“Most faults are not in our Constitution, but in ourselves. “
“A right is not what someone gives you; it’s what no one can take from you.”
West Villager Ramsey Clark is our last living legend from The Great Society that created Medicare and Medicaid, passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (which he supervised) and was a major influence of the 1960s era of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a historically important time in American life.
He was one of LBJ’s most popular and successful cabinet appointments, being described as “able, independent, liberal and soft-spoken” and a symbol of the New Frontier liberals.
All of this long before Watergate.
I asked him about the time he met his future boss, the President:
“It was ’36 or ’37. I was only 9 or 10 years old. We were stopped at a red light on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC, when a big wide car pulled up next to us. The window rolled down and a long arm extended out. “I’m Congressman Lyndon Johnson from Texas,” he said. “I think the only reason he stopped is he saw my Texas plates.”
Ramsey Clark’s affinity with LBJ and The Great Society was a big hat, big heart Texas journey. “He was an in-your-face Texan,” he said of the larger-than life-politician.
“They (the Johnsons) lived not too far away from us. And they used to have parties at their house. For the summer parties I’d go over there and work the ice cream freezer.”
Like LBJ, Clark’s dedication to Civil Rights was deeply ingrained and shaped his public service. In the early 60s, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent him on a Civil Rights mission to the South.
So what drove you to Civil Rights?
“My lifelong commitment has always been to peace on Earth,” says Clark. “Civil Rights is very painful. Remember, I come from Texas. We had a large Chicano and Negro population. There was a lot of trouble. But this was my first involvement in the struggle for peace on Earth. You have to take the harder road of non-violent change if your goal is peace. I still carry that commitment.”
So how does the limited media world of 50 years ago square with today’s social media and the 24/7 news cycle attack on our senses? Does it impair our sense of justice?
“I don’t think the media shapes our sense of justice. But they do control power and financial interest in this country. And that has a great influence on our minds.”
Which brought us to the current state of our country and the American mind. And, of course the media and the prospect of Russian collusion.
So I asked:
Is there a parallel between Richard Nixon’s ‘collusion’ with the Vietnamese government in 1968 (Nixon secretly pleaded with the South Vietnamese government not to speak to Johnson at a critical time during his reelection campaign so Nixon could more easily win the Presidency) — which contributed to LBJ’s downfall, retirement and eventual seclusion —and the possible collusion of President Trump’s campaign with the Russian government to defraud the election?
“That was a different time” he said, “every instance is different.”
His pristine sense of justice shines through with every comment. It foretells the extraordinary lengths Clark has taken to represent some of the world’s most hated warmongers: Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor, for example. His principles of justice often found him in conflict with the political and media generated demon of the day. “No one would give them a fair trial” he says. On this he stands virtually alone in American history.
When asked in an NPR interview in 2005 if Ramsey Clark was “off his rocker,” to defend such heinous war criminals, Abdeen Jabara former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who has worked with Clark on cases for years said “No, I think history will record that he is the best of America.” He added, that in fact he was “very much on his rocker.”
How do you see the trend in Civil and Human Rights changing over the past 50 years?
“I think we’re in a period of stagnation where we’re not seeing the sense of priority and the fulfillment of the promises of civil human rights that we advanced in the ‘60s.”
We discussed Kurt Anderson’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History in which the author posits that we’ve lost our sense of truth and consequences as a nation and are on the path to fascination with entertainment and short attention span as we go off a democratic cliff.
“I think people just got lazy as the technology made life easier, made it more fun. But it’s a real problem.”
Do you believe that Donald Trump is America’s greatest gift and challenge to Democracy?
“I’d say challenge for certain, not a gift but maybe he’s a tonic to our Democracy.”
How do you think LGBT Civil Rights differs from African-American or Latino/Hispanic Civil Rights?
“I saw how painful it was for gays to be discriminated against and were not even visibly different. They’re rejected from society. With black folks you can look at them and see their problem, but for gays it’s different, more opaque.”
Ramsey Clark sits back and gazes out the window to the sunny streets of Greenwich Village. “My wife was the one who chose to live here. And it’s been a blessing. It’s really a relaxed place and the people are great. After all, I’ve lived here half my life.” How lucky we are. His beloved wife Georgia died in 2010 and until recently his daughter Ronda lived with him and still frequently visits. Son Thomas Clark II, an environmental lawyer died in 2013; he has 3 adoring grandchildren: Whitney, Taylor and Paige.
At 90 Ramsey’s mind is clear and he carries the grace and dignity of a soldier of truth. The New School (he is a Board member) celebrated his birthday in December with a film showing.
For more on Ramsey Clark look for two biographies and a documentary film entitled Citizen Clark… A Life of Principle by Joe Stillman to be be released later this year (www.alifeofprinciple.com).