Monday, December 5

Ramsey Clark as Lord Jim?

Daniel Zwerdling's report Ramsey Clark for the Defense says,
Clark was already stirring up controversy back in the 1960s when he was attorney general for President Lyndon Johnson. Go back now to the evening of August 8th, 1968, the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. Everybody at the convention center knows what Clark stands for; he's for schools in the South to desegregate; he's tried to block the FBI from using more wiretaps. When Richard Nixon walks to the podium to pick accept his party's presidential nomination, he blames Ramsey Clark for causing a crime wave in America.
But he omits something interesting mentioned in "Sticking Up for Saddam: Ramsey Clark admits that his client is guilty" where Christopher Hitchens rips Clark and mentions his prosecution of the "Boston Five".

More details in Ramsey Clark's Prosecution Complex By Josh Saunders:
IN 1968, CLARK OVERSAW THE PROSECUTION of the pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., and three other men accused of conspiring to undermine the Selective Service laws. The charge was "conspiracy to aid and abet draft resistance," though the five, called the Boston Five because they were tried in federal court there, had never been in the same room together before the trial. Coffin was the only defendant who even knew all of the others. Michael Foley, an assistant professor of history at CUNY-Staten Island who has written extensively on the case, said that many activists saw it as the first attempt to decimate the antiwar intelligentsia.

Clark says now that he opposed the Vietnam War and claims that Johnson was aware of his views. But if Johnson knew, no one else seemed to, and Clark appears to have been far from vocal about his antiwar stance. In Dean Rusk's memoirs, the former secretary of state mentions that he sat next to Clark in cabinet meetings for years and never heard him express opposition to the war. Nor did the activist community think of Clark as an antiwar figure. Coffin, who is now 79 years old, said that he "had not heard that Clark was opposed to the war." Foley agreed that Clark "wasn't known at all among peace activists as being opposed to the war."

...If he was privately opposed to the war, though, why did he prosecute protesters? Sipping hot water from a mug in his sparsely furnished Greenwich Village law office, which was decorated with a portrait of his father and political posters demanding justice for the people of El Salvador,Clark said that he felt obligated to file charges against the activists. "I feel strongly that the law has to have integrity," he said, sounding more like an attorney general than an antigovernment radical. "The law either has to do what it says or change what it says, and there was no chance of changing the draft laws."Clark said he believed in the power of the law in part because he had seen the positive effects of civil rights legislation. Roger Wilkins, a professor at George Mason University who was the director of the U.S. community relations service in the Johnson Department of Justice, said thatClark told him at the time that "we can't pretend there's no law, or that because good people are against it we won't enforce it. You have to enforce the laws so that they are meaningful."

Yet his fealty to the rule of law doesn't fully explain why Clark pursued the case. Low-level prosecutions of draft resisters had been occurring throughout Clark's term, but this was the first prosecution directed at the leaders of the antiwar movement. Why did he pursue this case? Clark contends that he had discovered that men in minority and working-class districts were getting the longest sentences for draft evasion. So, he says, he decided to focus attention on people who he believed could defend themselves more adequately.

Coffin and Dr. Spock were respected, if controversial, public figures who could afford legal counsel to fight back for them. Clark said he believed their cases would take a long time and would "focus attention on the problems of the draft." Clark says that he hoped to show Johnson that opposition to the war wasn't limited to draft-dodging longhairs but included the most admired pediatrician in America, a prominent and revered patrician minister, and a respected former Kennedy Administration official (Marcus Raskin, who had been a special staff member on the National Security Council).

Coffin asked Clark about the prosecution years later and was told that he "had a choice to arrest a hundred students or select five people who could take financial care of themselves." The explanation convinced Coffin, who now counts Clark as a close friend. (He officiated at the wedding of Clark's son in 1980.) Foley, however, has done extensive research in an effort to verify Clark 's claim, and he's not sure that it can be corroborated. "I could not confirm that this was his main motivation," he said, "either because he kept it to himself the whole time or because he's making it up now." Robert Dallek's Flawed Giant, the second volume in his biography of Johnson, states that Clark told Johnson that the peace movement had been infiltrated by Communists. Whatever Clark's motivation, four of the five defendants were convicted and sentenced to time in prison.

In his office recently, Clark said that he didn't regret the case against the Boston Five. In 1998, though, he told Foley that he wished the case against Spock, Coffin, and the others had turned out differently. He had hoped that the case would "ventilate the issues," providing a public forum for a debate over the merits of the draft. But the presiding judge declared most arguments about the legitimacy of the war or the draft inadmissible before the trial even started. The first major trial of antiwar intellectuals ended up being more about legal nuance than political morality.

Two of the four convictions were eventually overturned on appeal because of a lack of evidence and improper jury instruction. The remaining two defendants, Coffin and the novelist Mitchell Goodman, were ordered to be retried, but the government dropped the case. Still, observers ofClark's career have tended to see the Boston Five case as Clark's "Lord Jim" moment, in which Clark , faced with a choice to act morally or amorally, does the latter, only to spend the rest of his life repenting for his mistake. David McReynolds, a longtime member of the War Resisters League who has worked withClark on antiwar campaigns, thinks that Clark is "haunted" by his indictment of the Boston Five. Both McReynolds and Mel Wulf think Clark may have felt guilty enough about the prosecution that he decided to spend his career doing penance.

Clark says that he wasn't disappointed with the verdict and that the case didn't change his politics, and contrition over one prosecution, no matter how symbolic, might seem an unlikely explanation for over 30 years of battling the U.S. government. Yet the case clearly troubled him. Though the conspiracy charge was weak—Foley reports that John Wall, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, later acknowledged that it looked like "a jerry-built thing . . . put together at the last minute"—it worked, convicting men with whomClark now insists he agreed.

The outcome of the trial had to have been demoralizing for a man whose civil rights work had led him to believe that the law could be a force for social good. Over time, it may have come to seem to him more like persecution than prosecution and may have left him with a newfound suspicion of the power of the state. After the Boston Five trial,Clark's fears of government power became more acute and his hopes for a peaceful, lawful society seem to have dimmed.
Zwerdling also cites Todd Gitlin, one of the most famous anti-war activists during the Vietnam War, now a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia as saying that
it's lunacy for Ramsey Clark to denounce America's policies while he stands arm in arm with tyrants. And Gitlin says just imagine what people around the world think.

Prof. GITLIN: They think, 'Oh, those who oppose American intervention are the friends of Saddam Hussein and of Slobodan Milosevic and of the genocides in Rwanda.' In a way, this is the mirror image of George Bush, 'You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists.' And this kind of primitive, either/or thinking is actually a disgrace and a discredit to the very deep and, I think, often extremely thoughtful objection to American foreign policy in the United States as often elsewhere in the world.
But then Zwerdling concludes his report
Clark's supporters say his seemingly outrageous battles will actually help America's image in the long run. They say Clark is proving that some Americans will fight for justice even when it's wildly unpopular.
So it's all right, even if, as Josh Saunders notes,
Few Americans and perhaps no other former high-ranking U.S. government officials have Clark's standing with America's enemies.

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