Ramsey Clark’s Choices

Ramsey Clark’s Choices

The former attorney general, who died April 9, remained true to his principles.


For a while during Ramsey Clark’s 1974 Senate race, I was his finance chairman. I’m not sure exactly how this happened. I had never been the finance chairman of anything. Maybe Victor Navasky, who ran the campaign, picked me from a list of volunteers. Or maybe it was a role no one else seemed to be filling at the time. The job required that I file documents with the Federal Election Commission. I learned two lessons. Campaigns cost a lot of money—and ours needed more.

Ramsey rejected contributions above $100. I, among others, urged him to raise this limit. No one, we said, would think that individual contributions of $200 or $300 or even more would corrupt Ramsey Clark. He declined. You could look at his position as imprudent and obstinate. Or you could look at it as principled and resolute. At the time, I was unsure of the answer. Today, in light of Ramsey’s work in the next four decades, I choose principled and resolute.

I first met Ramsey in 1969, the year both of us came to the Paul Weiss law firm, he as the former attorney general and a partner with a corner office, I as a young associate in a cubicle with no window. I was finishing a book on the rights of people in the criminal justice system and had the temerity to ask him to write a foreword. He had the grace and generosity to do so. I reread his foreword following news of his death. It is much better written than my book. And while the book is outdated, nearly every sentence in the foreword states a warning to all future generations.

“The ultimate attack on human dignity,” Ramsey wrote, “arises in the contest between the individual and the state when the power of the people through government is used unfairly to attack those it fears and hates.” That sentence, true then, is even more relevant now.

For many, including me at times, Ramsey’s life can appear full of contradictions. While attorney general, he stopped federal executions, opposed the war in Vietnam, and worked hard for civil rights. But he also prosecuted pediatrician Benjamin Spock and Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin for conspiracy to impede the draft.

In the following decades, Ramsey worked on behalf of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Moammar Gadhafi. But he also represented Attica inmates following the prison riot and defended the Rev. Philip Berrigan and six others, known as the Harrisburg Seven, against conspiracy charges arising out of their opposition to the war in Vietnam. How could Ramsey explain the inconsistency?

I would ask him that question from time to time. He always gave the same two answers. He didn’t seek out Hussein, Milosevic, and Gadhafi. They asked him for help. And he didn’t defend their entire lives. He defended them against what he believed to be the illegal conduct of the United States, no different from his criticism, while in Hanoi, of America’s bombing of North Vietnam or his defense of the Harrisburg Seven. There was no contradiction, he seemed to be saying, because at bottom the true client was the rule of law. He explained the prosecution of Spock and Coffin in the same way. Young men were being prosecuted for draft crimes. So should those who encouraged them. The law applied to all equally.

But why did Ramsey Clark have to be the one to defend foreign dictators and terrorists? Other lawyers were at least as knowledgeable about the legal issues and those clients could afford to hire them. Why did he lend his stature to the defense of these men? For Ramsey, that question answered itself. His stature was the reason for him to accept the assignments in the first place. Other lawyers might do a good—even a better—job as lawyers, but they could not bring necessary public attention to the unlawful American actions he denounced. His prominence could.

Ramsey was always comfortable with these answers. He was never defensive. He knew the answers were true. And he was more than willing, even eager, to debate them.

So once again we must ask: Were Ramsey’s choices imprudent? Was he being obstinate? Or was he, as he would patiently explain, being principled and resolute? His explanations are intellectually defensible, but much more important, for Ramsey they seemed to be compelling. In a real sense, I think he felt he had no choice. He expected public criticism and he got it. Then he continued doing exactly the same thing.

At the end of the foreword that Ramsey wrote for my book, he emphasized the need to “create in the people an understanding of the elements of justice and a passion for securing it for all.” He added: “What we must understand if this is to be is that mere words on paper have substance only through the actions of the people. The truth in the Bill of Rights will abide. The question is, will we?” Will we?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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