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“Given their roots in Texas and their embrace of that state and much of its culture, Thomas Campbell Clark and his son William Ramsey Clark probably could have become oil men, ruthless and wealthy.” So begins Alexander Wohl’s biog­raphy of Tom and Ramsey Clark. While that statement is Wohl’s first opinion, it cer­tainly will not be his last. In “Father, Son, and Con­sti­tution” Alexander Wohl pro­vides an engaging account of the roles Tom C. Clark and his son Ramsey Clark played in American pol­itics. The Clarks aggregate careers span from the early 1920’s to the present day, and both men wielded sig­nif­icant political power during that period.

Tom C. Clark began his career as a lawyer from Texas before achieving the posi­tions of United States Attorney General and ulti­mately Supreme Court Justice. His political career spanned an era when the United State gov­ernment made numerous con­tro­versial deci­sions. Clark became polit­i­cally prominent during World War I, when he served as the civilian coor­di­nator for the Alien Enemy Control Program during the government’s infamous internment of Japanese people. This role lead to his later position as Attorney General, whereupon Clark led 300 pros­e­cu­tions of alleged com­mu­nists and helped create the infamous Attorney General’s List (which pro­hibited mem­bership or par­tic­i­pation in a number of orga­ni­za­tions labeled “dis­loyal”) during the Cold War.

In 1945 Pres­ident Truman nom­i­nated Clark to be a Justice on the Supreme Court, where he par­tic­i­pated in landmark deci­sions including Mapp. v Ohio and Brown v. Board of Edu­cation. Tom Clark, and later his son Ramsey Clark, also dealt exten­sively with the infamous J. Edgar Hoover, who trans­formed the FBI into a pow­erful and largely autonomous agency during his thirty-seven-year stint as director.

Ramsey Clark con­tinued his father’s polit­i­cally active legacy, fol­lowing in his foot­steps to achieve the title attorney general. Upon Ramsey’s appointment to the position of attorney general in 1967, Tom C. Clark retired from the Supreme Court. Some of Ramsey Clark’s most eventful work, however, occurred on his path to becoming the attorney general — par­tic­u­larly in the area of civil rights.  Ramsey assisted in the inte­gration of the Uni­versity of Mis­sis­sippi, for a time serving as the prin­ciple civilian officer on-site in the place of Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach. As his work in the area of civil rights con­tinued, he would later befriend Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to fighting for civil rights, Ramsey attacked crime and civil unrest during the 1960’s and 1970’s. To address these problems he pursued a policy of pro­tecting civil rights and lending legal support to affir­mative action pro­grams.

When the country elected Pres­ident Nixon, Ramsey Clark lost his position as attorney general. He made an unsuc­cessful bid for the U.S. Senate seat in New York, and then returned to legal work. He even­tually served as a defense lawyer in several prominent inter­na­tional cases, and his clients included modern dic­tators such as Saddam Hussein.

Alexander Wohl nar­rates the life of the Clark pair with detail and flare. Although Wohl some­times swings between giving too much detail about minutia and not giving events enough context, his biog­raphy still suc­ceeds in bringing these two political figures to life. Wohl art­fully incor­po­rates the per­sonal and the political aspects of the Clarks’ lives, illu­mi­nating their humanity as he reveals both the suc­cesses and the short­comings evident in their careers. It’s easy to find oneself inex­plicably invested in under­standing these two men through the picture Wohl paints. In this way, Wohl passes the test of a good biog­rapher — to introduce the reader to the char­acter in such a way that it seems as if the reader has himself has encoun­tered the figure.

While Wohl excels in reviving the Clark pair, he does so with a strong bias in favor of Pro­gres­sivism. Five pages into his biog­raphy, he makes a pro­nouncement that no doubt caused the Founding Fathers to roll in their graves: “The Con­sti­tution… uniquely adapted to the changing times, is remarkable both for the rights it explicitly pro­tects and for those it does not.” For those who hope that Wohl means that rights not explicit in Con­sti­tution are pro­tected because the gov­ernment does not have the power to violate them, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Wohl sub­scribes to a more pro­gressive ide­ology, and pro­gressive opinions spo­rad­i­cally appear in his nar­ration of political events.

Despite his goal not to “identify one correct answer, ide­ology, or legal inter­pre­tation,” rather to “better under­stand how and why our nation reaches the deci­sions it does today… and perhaps even how to apply the lessons learned to con­tem­porary issues,” Wohl makes his pre­ferred ide­ology clear. Rather than lim­iting his pre­sen­tation of the issues faced by the Clarks to facts, he fre­quently offers his own opinions on various topics. The quote he places at the beginning of each chapter tend to be leftist, one saying: “justice is the tol­erable accom­mo­dation of the con­flicting interests of society, and I don’t believe there is any royal road to attain such accom­mo­dation con­cretely.”

He force­fully crit­i­cizes con­ser­v­ative attempts to “reverse the many leg­islative accom­plish­ments of the New Deal,” labeling their con­cerns that the under­pin­nings of the New Deal were socialist “hyperbole” — a statement of pure opinion clearly in oppo­sition to his stated goal. Wohl also blames Repub­licans for many gov­ernment encroach­ments on indi­vidual liberty, giving more leniency liberal political figures overall.

Wohl’s political opinions might rankle those who believe in Founding prin­ciples — and rightly so— but his book does provide a unique exam­i­nation of two political figures who are often over­looked. Because of this, it merits a read, or at least a skim, for those inter­ested in the ways in which the Department of Justice, Supreme Court, and the Clarks shaped America in the 20th century.

 

                         

                             cbratten@hillsdale.edu