Judge William P. Clark Jr., San Luis Obispo County cattle rancher and close friend and political adviser to President Ronald Reagan, died Saturday morning at his Shandon home. He was 81.
He died of advanced Parkinson’s disease.
“We love him and are going to miss him a lot,” said his son, Paul Clark.
William Clark’s political comet spanned more than 20 years and burned most brightly under the benefaction of Reagan early in his career. His ranching ethic combined with a keen analytical mind resonated with the two-term governor and president.
Clark was born in Oxnard in 1931. After serving in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps in Europe from 1954 to 1955, he attended both Stanford University and Loyola Law School — not earning a law degree but able to pass the California Bar — before hanging out his law shingle in Ventura.
Law and order may have been in his genes. His grandfather, Robert, was a Ventura County sheriff and U.S. marshal; his father, William Sr., was a police chief of Oxnard and a Ventura County undersheriff.
Clark, a fourth-generation Californian, signed on as Reagan’s Ventura County campaign manager when the actor ran for governor in 1966, and went on to be a charter member of Reagan’s staff in Sacramento, serving first as his Cabinet secretary and later as his executive secretary. It was during this time that Clark originated the “mini memo,” usually a one-page document that distilled complex issues for Reagan’s digestion.
In 1969, Clark was appointed by Reagan to the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court — a move denounced and censured by the San Luis Obispo County Bar Association as political patronage. Reagan said the brouhaha was nothing more than a “tempest in a teapot” and that Clark was one of the “brightest and ablest young men” he knew.
From that point, Clark found himself on the political fast track: He was elected to a full term on the Superior Court the following year, then Reagan appointed him to the state appellate court in Los Angeles in 1972, and to the state Supreme Court in 1973. He was 41 years old.
When Reagan was elected president, he didn’t forget his friend, tapping him for deputy secretary of state in 1981. The move caused an international sensation when Clark, during confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged that he wasn’t up to speed on foreign policy. Although ultimately approved, foreign newspapers had labeled him a “nitwit” and “don’t know man.” It’s believed by some political observers that he was given the job of No. 2 man at the State Department to keep an eye on the politically aggressive Alexander Haig, who was secretary of state at the time.
If his role was that of watchdog, it was short-lived.
A year later, Clark became Reagan’s national security adviser. Then, after controversial Interior Secretary James Watt made a crude joke about minorities and handicapped individuals, Clark was asked to take his place in the Cabinet. Clark agreed and stayed for almost two years before stepping down in 1985.
He told ABC’s Good Morning America that, “It’s time to get back to the ranch.”
Perhaps the high point of Clark's Washington career was his tenure as national security adviser while Reagan maneuvered the Soviet Union toward arms control.
In an interview at the time, he said, “The Soviets will not perceive the U.S. to be weak while Ronald Reagan is president. ... They should also recognize that the American people do not want to return to a policy of weakness.”
Upon his return to his Shandon ranch, Clark went back into private practice and started Clark & Co., a business-consulting firm. For the next decade, he worked on creating Chapel Hill, a nondenominational 900-square-foot chapel on 160 acres that Clark donated to the community. Its interior includes stained glass and a 13th-century Moorish ceiling from the William Randolph Hearst collection. A bone relic from Father Junipero Serra is buried near a Hearst fireplace within the chapel.
A devout Roman Catholic, in his later years, Clark was a strong opponent of abortion and wrote several Viewpoints to The Tribune in San Luis Obispo outlining those beliefs.
Clark’s wife, Joan, died four years ago. He is survived by his five children, Monica, Peter, Nina, Colin and Paul.
Memorial services will be held at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at Chapel Hill in Shandon.