“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.