Ramsey Clark’s Choices

During Ramsey Clark’s Senate race in 1974, I was its chief financial officer for a while. I’m not sure how exactly that happened. I had never been the CFO of anything. Perhaps Victor Navasky, who led the campaign, picked me from a list of volunteers. Or maybe it was a role that no one else seemed to be filling at the time. The task required that I submit documents to the Bundestag Electoral Commission. I learned two lessons. Campaigns cost a lot of money – and ours needed more.

Ramsey declined submissions over $ 100. Among other things, I asked him to raise this limit. Nobody, we said, would think that single posts of $ 200 or $ 300 or more would corrupt Ramsey Clark. He refused. His position could be viewed as imprudent and stubborn. Or you could consider it principled and resolute. At the time, I wasn’t sure of the answer. Given Ramsey’s work over the next four decades, my choice today is principled and determined.

I first met Ramsey in 1969, the year we both joined the Paul Weiss law firm, he as a former attorney general and partner in a corner office, me as a young employee in a cubicle with no windows. I was just finishing a book on human rights in the criminal justice system and had the audacity to ask him to write a foreword. He had the grace and generosity to do this. I reread his foreword after the news of his death. It is much better written than my book. And while the book is out of date, almost every sentence in the foreword warns all future generations.

“The ultimate assault on human dignity,” Ramsey wrote, “arises in competition between the individual and the state, when the power of the people is unfairly used by the government to attack those it fears and hates.” This sentence is even more relevant back then.

For many, and sometimes for me, Ramsey’s life can seem full of contradictions. As attorney general, he stopped federal executions, opposed the Vietnam War, and campaigned hard for civil rights. He also prosecuted the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and the Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin for conspiracy to obstruct the draft.

In the decades that followed, Ramsey worked on behalf of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Moammar Gaddafi. He also represented Attica inmates after the prison riot and defended Rev. Philip Berrigan and six others, known as the Harrisburg Seven, against allegations of conspiracy resulting from their opposition to the Vietnam War. How could Ramsey explain the inconsistency?

I would ask him this question from time to time. He always gave the same two answers. He wasn’t looking for Hussein, Milosevic and Gaddafi. They asked him for help. And he hasn’t defended her whole life. He defended them against what he believed to be the illegal behavior of the United States, no different than his criticism in Hanoi of America’s bombing raids on North Vietnam or his defense of the Harrisburg Seven. There was no contradiction, he seemed to be saying, because basically the real client was the rule of law. He explained the pursuit of Spock and Coffin in the same way. Young men have been prosecuted for crimes. So should those who encouraged them. The law applied equally to everyone.

But why did Ramsey Clark have to be the one defending foreign dictators and terrorists? Other lawyers were just as knowledgeable about legal issues, and these clients could afford to hire them. Why did he give his stature to the defense of these men? For Ramsey this question answered itself. His stature was the reason for him to accept the assignments in the first place. Other lawyers could do a good job – even better – as lawyers, but they could not draw the necessary public attention to the illegal American actions he denounced. His notoriety could.

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

So we have to ask again: Were Ramsey’s decisions unwise? Was he persistent? Or was he, as he would patiently explain, principled and determined? His explanations are intellectually defensible, but more importantly, to Ramsey, they seemed convincing. Literally, he felt like he had no choice. He expected and received public criticism. Then he did exactly the same thing.

At the end of the preface that Ramsey wrote for my book, he stressed the need “to instill in the people an understanding of the elements of justice and a passion for ensuring them for all”. He added, “What we need to understand is that mere words on paper have substance only through the actions of the people. The truth in the Bill of Rights will remain. The question is, will we? ” We will?


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