Ramsey Clark says he hasn't changed at all since the days when he was Lyndon Johnson's attorney general. He knows that a lot of people don't believe him, but he doesn't seem to care.
"All I've been doing," Clark says in his soft Texas drawl, "is what I thought would prevent war and strengthen international institutions and protect human rights and create social and economic justice."
Maybe. But his crusade for peace and justice has taken some strange detours over the last couple of decades.
These days, for instance, Clark, 74, serves as a lawyer for Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav dictator now on trial for war crimes at an International Criminal Tribunal in Holland. Clark is also defending Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a Rwandan clergyman charged with genocide in connection with the massacre of Tutsis in 1994.
Over the years, Clark has also served as an attorney for the Palestine Liberation Organization. And for Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb general indicted on charges of genocide in 1995. And Lyndon LaRouche, the American political cult leader convicted of mail fraud in 1988. And Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "blind cleric" convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role as spiritual adviser to the men who exploded a truck bomb in the World Trade Center in 1993.
But defending clients isn't all Clark does. He also serves as what one former colleague describes as "a one-man opposition State Department" -- flying to Iran, Iraq, Panama, Serbia, Libya and North Korea to denounce the United States for what he calls "war crimes" or "genocide" against those nations. Then he comes home to convene propaganda tribunals, where leftist activists try -- and inevitably convict -- the United States for crimes against humanity.
Clark also works as a political organizer. He's the founder and chairperson of the International Action Center, an antiwar group created and dominated by members of a tiny Marxist-Leninist sect called the Workers World Party. The IAC and a spin-off group, International ANSWER, organized the antiwar demonstration that drew nearly 100,000 to Washington on Oct. 26. Now, they are organizing a sequel scheduled for Jan. 18.
Clark has drawn merciless fire from commentators across the political spectrum. Conservative pundit George F. Will dismisses him as "a piece of lint from the 1960s." Liberal commentator John B. Judis wrote that Clark "inhabits the furthest reaches of the fevered swamps of American politics." Salon, the online magazine, called him "the war criminal's best friend." And an anarchist Web site called the Shadow ran a story titled "The Mysterious Ramsey Clark: Stalinist Dupe or Ruling-Class Spook?"
How does Clark explain the political odyssey that took him from serving as attorney general of the United States to serving as prosecutor in a ragtag show trial that charged the United States with war crimes in Korea?
The man who made a career out of defending controversial political figures declines to defend himself.
"I've been accused of not only not promoting myself but not defending myself," he says, sitting in the cramped conference room of his Greenwich Village law office, beneath a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and an El Salvador solidarity poster. "Because I think the important thing is to affirmatively stand for something, not spend your time being diverted by people who are making up stuff or who want to change the subject."
'The Preacher' The scourge of U.S. foreign policy possesses an impeccable Establishment pedigree.
His paternal grandfather was president of the Texas Bar Association. His maternal grandfather served on the Texas Supreme Court. His father, Tom C. Clark, was Harry Truman's attorney general before Truman appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1949.
At 17, Clark defied his father's wishes and dropped out of Washington's Woodrow Wilson High School to join the Marine Corps in the waning days of World War II. He served as a courier and saw horrific scenes of destruction in Germany, Poland, Russia and China, which left him with a deep loathing of war.
He came home, earned a history degree at the University of Texas, then a law degree at the University of Chicago. He married a UT classmate, Georgia Welch, and they reared two children -- Tom, who is now a lawyer for the Justice Department, and Ronda, who was born deaf, epileptic and profoundly retarded. Clark spent hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and countless hours of effort -- on Ronda's health, his son says.
"His relationship with Ronda is revealing," says Tom Clark, "because it shows his compassion, his tenderness and his willingness to work with very difficult situations."
Clark spent a decade at the family law firm in Dallas and then, in 1961, President Kennedy appointed him assistant attorney general. In his early thirties, he was the youngest assistant AG, but he wasn't afraid to speak his mind. He raised moral questions on so many issues -- including wiretapping and the death penalty -- that he was nicknamed "the Preacher."
"He brought an ethical boldness," says Victor Navasky, publisher of the left-liberal magazine the Nation and author of "Kennedy Justice," a book on Robert Kennedy's Justice Department. "To dissent on a matter like wiretapping when you're the youngest assistant AG -- that takes a certain kind of self-confidence."
Impressed with Clark's guts, his bosses dispatched him to the scenes of the great civil rights battles of the era -- Ole Miss, Birmingham, Selma. For Clark, watching poor, unarmed black people defy entrenched racism was a life-changing experience that gave him a lingering sympathy for dissidents.
In 1966, President Johnson appointed Clark attorney general. He was 39. Clark's father swore him in and then resigned from the Supreme Court to avoid a potential conflict of interest.
He became the most liberal attorney general since World War II. He cut back on wiretaps. He declared a moratorium on federal executions and federal prison construction, arguing that the best way to fight crime was by ending poverty and racism. He opposed the Vietnam War -- but out of deference to LBJ didn't speak publicly.
Despite enormous pressure from Congress, Clark refused to indict black militants and antiwar leaders for inciting riots when protests turned violent in 1968. But Clark did prosecute Benjamin Spock, the famous baby doctor, and four other antiwar activists for a conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft. Their convictions were later overturned.
Many of Clark's antiwar friends are still peeved at the Spock prosecution, but he defends it. "The Department of Justice worked on principle," he says, "and we applied the facts to the law and I thought there was sufficient action there to warrant an indictment."
In 1968, Richard Nixon turned Clark into an issue in his presidential campaign, promising at every whistle-stop to fire Clark and hire somebody who'd crack down on crime.
When Nixon won a narrow victory, LBJ blamed Clark. He stopped speaking to his attorney general and pointedly failed to invite him to his farewell Cabinet luncheon.
Clark left Justice in 1969 and tried his hand at high-powered corporate law, signing on with the firm of Paul, Weiss in Manhattan. But it didn't work out.
"I had a hope that representing major corporations would alter their policies in certain ways, like employment nondiscrimination and stuff like that," he says. "But from my experience, that's the last thing in the world they want their own lawyer tellin' 'em. They want their own lawyer tellin' 'em how to do what they want to do, not what they ought to do."
In 1973, he quit Paul, Weiss. In 1974, he ran for the U.S. Senate in New York. He won the Democratic primary and then took on incumbent Jacob Javits, a popular liberal Republican.
Clark ran a maverick campaign. He urged a 50 percent cut in the defense budget, refused to take contributions over $100 and insisted on telling voters exactly what they didn't want to hear.
"I went out to Grumman on Long Island, which was the largest employer in Nassau and Suffolk County, making a military plane I didn't like," he says. "I came out for closing the plant. I went upstate and told the hunters I thought we ought to abolish handguns and license long guns. And on and on like that."
Not surprisingly, he lost.
The Defender "It's true I ran for office once, but I'm not really suited for it," Clark says.
He pauses, fiddles with a paper clip, reaches down to scratch his long, lanky left leg, just above an argyle sock that peeks out from one of his ankle-high beige Wallabees, a style of footwear rarely seen since the '70s.
"My experience in the Senate would have been miserable," he continues. "I would have been a misfit. I never would have been a member of the club because I would have been fighting against the very things they were doing without any real chance of converting more than a handful."
Clark's political failure freed him to pursue a path more conducive to his maverick personality -- a lawyer and international activist accountable to no constituency except his own conscience.
In the '70s, Clark became a lefty "movement lawyer," defending dissidents, prisoners and revolutionaries of every variety: The Attica prison rioters. The Berrigan brothers and six other pacifists who entered a defense plant and hammered on the nose cone of a missile. Leonard Peltier, the Sioux Indian activist convicted of killing two FBI agents. Lori Berenson, the American convicted by a Peruvian military court of aiding Marxist guerrillas.
But Clark didn't defend just leftists. He has also worked for eccentric extremist Lyndon LaRouche. And several former Nazi concentration camp guards. And the Branch Davidians who sued the federal government over the Waco raid.
His foreign clients are even more controversial. He defended Yasser Arafat and the PLO when they were sued by the family of Leon Klinghoffer, the American tourist killed by PLO terrorists on the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. He defended Karadzic when the Serb general was sued in a U.S. court by Bosnian women who accused him of war crimes. And now he's defending Milosevic and Ntakirutimana in international war crimes tribunals.
"Lawyers defend people," Clark says. "That's what they're supposed to do."
But Clark is also one of the few members of the defense bar who conduct their own foreign policy.
In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, he flew to Hanoi and denounced the U.S. war effort.
In 1980, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran, Clark flew to Tehran at the behest of President Carter to try to win the release of 53 American hostages. He flew home without the hostages, but then he returned to Iran and participated in a tribunal that convicted the United States of colluding in the shah's crimes. That made Carter so mad he threatened to prosecute Clark for violating a ban on travel to Iran.
In 1986, after the United States bombed Libya in response to a terrorist bombing of a Berlin disco, Clark flew to Tripoli, met with dictator Moammar Gaddafi and denounced the air raid. Later, he sued the U.S. government on behalf of Libyans killed and injured in the bombing, but the suit was thrown out of court.
In 1990, after the United States invaded Panama to arrest dictator Manuel Noriega for dope dealing, Clark flew to Panama, denounced the invasion and claimed Americans killed between 2,000 and 4,000 people. When a reporter asked him for evidence, Clark snapped, "You are an investigative journalist. You find the sources." A study by the independent Panamanian Committee for Human Rights later put the death toll at 565.
Later that year, Iraq invaded Kuwait and Clark embarked on a crusade that enmeshed him with a Communist splinter group called the Workers World Party.
The Tribunals He gets very emotional when he talks about Iraq.
"We bombed them for 42 days in 1991," Clark says. "I was there for 14 of them. I drove 2,000 miles just seeing civilian damage. We were hitting every civilian thing you can think of -- taxicabs, school buses, mosques, synagogues, hospitals. I didn't see a hospital that had windows in it -- all of them were smashed! We dropped 88,500 tons of bombs! That's a Pentagon figure. That's 7 1/2 Hiroshimas! A hundred fifty thousand Iraqis died! We lost 155. That's a slaughter! That's a slaughter! You can't slaughter people like that!"
After that trip, Clark returned to New York and presided over a mock war crimes tribunal that found the United States guilty of "crimes against humanity." Every year since then, he has returned to Iraq to bring medicine and denounce the United States for "genocide" for promoting economic sanctions that he and others claim have killed more than a million Iraqis. (The U.S. government attributes Iraqi deaths not to sanctions but to Saddam Hussein spending his nation's wealth on the military.)
Clark's actions in Iraq aren't surprising. People expect him to do those things. What they didn't expect was that the former attorney general would volunteer to serve as the leader of an antiwar group founded and dominated by the Workers World Party, a communist fringe group that embraces North Korea, the world's last unrepentant Stalinist regime.
That strange story began in late 1990, when two competing groups of antiwar activists organized two rival demonstrations against the Gulf War. One group was a broad-based coalition that denounced Hussein's invasion of Kuwait but urged the United States to respond with economic sanctions, not war. The other group, founded and controlled by the Workers World Party, refused to denounce Hussein and opposed both war and sanctions.
Clark signed on to support the second group, which shocked his old friends in the antiwar movement. One of them, David McReynolds of the War Resisters League, visited Clark to inform him that he was being used by Workers World.
"He didn't seem too impressed by what I was saying," McReynolds recalls. "Maybe he thought it smacked of McCarthyism and name-calling."
In 1991, when Clark organized his war crimes tribunal on Iraq, several Workers World leaders appeared as speakers. In 1992, when Workers World organizers, some of them working out of space in Clark's law office, created an antiwar organization called the International Action Center, Clark was -- and still is -- listed as the IAC's "founder" and "chairperson."
Workers World's domination of a group that Clark nominally heads has been the subject of countless articles over the past decade, but Clark says he knows nothing about the party.
"I know that there's a Workers World Party and I think they have a newspaper," he says when asked about the group. "My association with Workers World? I don't know of any. I have no formal association with Workers World. There's a Workers Party in Turkey that supported the Kurdish people, and I've always supported the Kurdish people. . . . I have no knowledge or involvement in Workers World. I should know more, I suppose."
Indeed, he should. In 2001, Clark traveled to North Korea -- Workers World's favorite nation -- with a delegation that included Brian Becker, who is both co-director of the IAC and a member of the secretariat of the Workers World Party. In Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Clark held a news conference to denounce the United States for what he called 50 years of war crimes against Korea.
When the delegation returned home, the IAC sponsored the "Korean Truth Commission International War Crimes Tribunal." Becker was the tribunal's "co-coordinator." Clark served as the prosecuting attorney. The United States was the defendant. Nobody dwelt on the inconvenient fact that the Korean War began when North Korea invaded South Korea.
To the surprise of no one, the "jury" found the United States guilty on all counts.
The Rationale Ramsey Clark is baffling, even to old friends.
He is, says a Texas buddy, historian Ronnie Dugger, "a very deep and mysterious person."
"I remain mystified by Ramsey," says McReynolds. "I have no idea what makes Ramsey tick, and I don't know anyone who knows what makes Ramsey tick."
"He's an enigma," says Mel Wulf, who was Clark's law partner for five years. "He's superficially very congenial but you never get past the superficiality of it. He totally keeps his own counsel."
Like a lot of people in New York's left-wing circles, Wulf has a pop-psych theory about Clark. "My pop psychology is that he did some terrible things when he was AG and maybe he's been trying to atone ever since," he says. "I think part of his problem is that he's always so totally uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of his indicting Spock."
Another popular theory is the one that John Judis advanced in a scathing article in the New Republic in 1991: Clark's radical politics are the product of rebellion against his conservative father. Tom Clark was a Commie-bashing attorney general, Judis wrote, and his son became "an ally of the people his father was willing to suppress."
"Pop psychologists say he's atoning, but I don't buy that," says Victor Navasky, publisher of the Nation and a friend of Clark for 30 years.
Navasky has his own theory: "Ramsey is in the tradition of the great dissenters," he says. "He's a romantic and an idealist. He really believes one person can make a difference."
Navasky sometimes disagrees with Clark, but he doesn't see him as a dupe of Workers World. "My assumption is that he feels that if he's worked with you in a cause he believes is just, he isn't going to worry if you're a member of the Communist Party or the Workers World Party."
Meanwhile, Clark's son, Tom, says he's not at all mystified by his father.
"I don't find him unpredictable," he says. "He has always had a core set of beliefs -- in the rule of law, in civil rights, in human rights. . . . He is not willing to alter his beliefs to win a vote or gain a client or earn a fee. He's going to give it to you straight and he's not going to sugarcoat it. People find it hard to believe, but it's a genuine thing."
The Digressions Deep into a four-hour interview, Clark is asked: What are your politics?
He pauses, thinks for a moment.
"Probably my politics are to have no politics in the traditional sense," he says. "I mean, I vote. I voted for [Democrat] Carl McCall for governor. I like Carl and I thought it would be wonderful to have an African American as governor of New York."
Then he digresses into a story about working for universal voter registration during the '70s. Then he digresses into a riff on how pathetic U.S. voter turnout rates are, which leads to a digression on how money controls politics in the United States, which is why, he says, Congress didn't heed the will of the public and vote against Bush's new war on Iraq.
After all that, he returns to his political views, which are, he says, strictly non-ideological. "I want to see an end to hunger, you know," he says in his Texas drawl, "and I don't think I'm gonna see it by gettin' into a debate between capitalism and Marx. I think you're gonna solve it by gettin' the food out there."
That's the way the interview goes: Ask a question and he digresses, then tells a story about Bobby Kennedy, then denounces U.S. foreign policy from the Monroe Doctrine right up to the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan: "It was foolish from every standpoint. We shot the place up. It's totally out of control. We're going to have to find a way out somehow."
Along the way, he explains himself in bits and pieces. He defends controversial clients because "if you believe in the rule of law, you're never afraid to represent anybody." He's defending Milosevic and Ntakirutimana because he believes that ad hoc war crimes tribunals are inherently unfair and ought to be replaced by a permanent world criminal court.
Besides, he says, "I feel strongly that Pastor Ntakirutimana is innocent." As for Milosevic: "I don't judge him one way or another. But when I saw [Yugoslavia] turn him over against the will of its people, I perceived that as just power politics persecuting a guy."
He scoffs at the pop-psych theories about his political odyssey: "That sounds ridiculous." It fact, he doesn't believe he's had a political odyssey. He says he's still working for the same goals he had as attorney general, bringing the ideals of the civil rights movement into the international realm.
"The idea that it's a political odyssey is ridiculous," he says. "It's beyond anything I know. It may appear that way, but all I know is that I've been working hard -- and I do work hard -- to support things like peace, like nondiscrimination, like the elimination of poverty and war and things like that."
Then he's off on another digression, this one about how U.S. sanctions against Vietnam were a form of genocide.
In September, Clark announced rallies protesting a possible attack on Iraq. With him is Brian Becker, co-director of the IAC antiwar group and also an official of the Workers World Party.Ramsey Clark is sworn in as attorney general by his father, Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, in 1966 as President Johnson watches.In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, Clark flew into Hanoi and denounced the U.S. war effort.In 1998 Clark, left, defended New York businessman Jack Reimer, who was found to have participated in Nazi atrocities at an SS camp. "I want to see an end to hunger, you know," says Clark, pictured in his New York office, "and I don't think I'm gonna see it by gettin' into a debate between capitalism and Marx. I think you're gonna solve it by gettin' the food out there."