I first met Ramsey Clark, who died on April 9, when I interviewed him for Kennedy Justice—the book I was writing about Robert F. Kennedy’s attorney generalship.
Ramsey had been assistant attorney general in charge of the Lands and Natural Resources Division at Justice. In a department that included, among others, Burke Marshall as head of the Civil Rights Division, Nick Katzenback as Kennedy’s number two, and Archibald Cox as solicitor general, Ramsey was thought by many—including yours truly—to be a nonentity who was given his job as a favor to Lyndon Johnson, then John F. Kennedy’s vice president.
But I quickly learned how wrong I was. The early 1960s was a period when many observers used to refer to “extremists of both sides”—the White Citizens Council on the one hand and the NAACP on the other. But after an hour with Ramsey, it was so clear his heart and mind were with the NAACP that I asked him why he was not a member.
“I guess I’m not a joiner,” he said with a smile. Also, while Ramsey had only good things to say about RFK, unlike the other assistant AGs he didn’t hesitate to say where he disagreed. For example, he disapproved of the so-called “Get Hoffa Squad” targeting Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa, which he felt made for unequal justice, and told me he had opposed wiretapping and bugging organized crime figures. Not only did he believe tapping and bugging to be wrong; he also thought they were inefficient. “It takes 27 men to install one of those things” (which he called “insidious”) and to monitor it, he told me. Later, as attorney general, Ramsey would issue an unprecedented directive banning all such activities by federal agencies. And, among other liberal measures, he oversaw the drafting of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, which addressed discrimination in housing.
Typically, I would arrive for an 8 o’clock breakfast meeting at Clark’s unpretentious three-bedroom house in Falls Church, Va., to be greeted at the door by his wife, Georgia, an ebullient blonde in her bare feet. In her late 30s, she would hum to herself when the conversation lapsed and looked more like a folksinger than the wife of a high government official.
Most observers who didn’t know him assumed Ramsey would carry on in the hawkish tradition of his father, Justice Tom C. Clark, who had served as attorney general himself from 1945 to 1949 under Harry Truman. It was Clark who had inaugurated the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations.
But I quickly learned the striking difference between father and son. Here’s one example: In 1949, Attorney General Tom Clark brought the famous case against Judith Coplon, a 29-year-old government employee accused of passing secrets to her Soviet sweetheart. And 17 years later, it was Acting Attorney General Ramsey Clark who dismissed the case against Coplon. “I read the record over a couple of hours and there was nothing else to do. Her conviction had been reversed because of tainted evidence. Besides, the constitution guarantees a speedy trial.”
When my conversations with Ramsey were over, Georgia would wave from the doorway saying, “Adios, Ram,” and then he would drive to work in his battered 1949 Oldsmobile convertible, which he much preferred to the chauffeured limousine that came with the job.
Some years later, in 1974, when he ran for the US Senate against Senator Jacob Javits, Ramsey asked me to be his campaign manager. Unlike others in that job, who were always worried that their candidate would do or say the wrong thing, I always knew I could count on Ramsey to show us the best possible way.
Once, when a lawyer told him, ”Your father doesn’t agree with you,” Ramsey responded, “Then don’t tell him what I said.” A champion of civil rights and civil liberties who opposed capital punishment, Ramsey ended up spending much of his life defending unpopular causes and infamous people, including the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the despicable Lyndon LaRouche. This is not the place to get into why he took on any particular client, other than to say he always had eloquently expressed libertarian reasons for doing what he did.
I once discovered that he kept in the top drawer of his desk a little list of things he hoped to accomplish. When I thought I saw him check something off, I asked him if he might want to call this a new kind of attorney general’s list. Ramsey smiled and cleared his throat and said, “I don’t exactly approve of that other kind of list.”
Besides being educational, working for Ramsey was fun. As The New York Times pointed out, he seemed to revel in telling others what they did not want to hear. “He advocated gun control in speeches to hunters and told defense industry workers that their plants should be closed.”
There will never be another like him.