Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at The American Spectator.
I’d like to share a story on Senator Joe Biden that happened 31 years ago, which may be relevant to Biden’s Thursday evening debate with Paul Ryan. It involved Biden’s international humiliation of a good man, and it became a habit for Biden. I’m confident Biden may aim to repeat the performance with Paul Ryan in the vice-presidential debate, looking to “Quayle” the youthful Wisconsin congressman in a way worse than Lloyd Bentsen might have done.
The “good man” I’m referring to is William P. “Bill” Clark, also known as Judge Clark. Clark, now 80 years old and living in Paso Robles, California, was Ronald Reagan’s confidant, closest aide, and single most important adviser in the effort to take down the Soviet Union. He was widely heralded from left to right, from the likes of Maureen Dowd to Lou Cannon to Edmund Morris to Cap Weinberger to Michael Reagan. But before Clark could do the crucial work he did for President Reagan, he had to survive confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1981.
Reagan had just succeeded in convincing Clark to give up his California Supreme Court seat—to which Governor Reagan had appointed him—to help him come to Washington to run the State Department. Reagan wanted an “America Desk” at State, someone loyal who could ensure the department would be an asset, not a liability. He needed a second-in-command there to help keep an eye on Secretary of State Al Haig. He wanted someone who was not known as a foreign-policy expert but was a sure-thing to get things done, to keep order, and to truly run the department. He knew he could trust Clark completely.
Unfortunately for Clark, the post required Senate approval, where, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a grinning Joe Biden was poised to embarrass Reagan’s new guy. So, on February 2, 1981, Clark took questions from the senators, including Biden, who launched into what theWashington Post would call, “The Interrogation of Justice Clark.”
Biden began by patronizing Clark for his ability to put himself through school as the son of a poor rancher. “I, for one, think it admirable the way in which you have conducted yourself in getting to and through school,” began Biden. “I have a great deal of admiration for you.”
Biden then expressed his admiration by placing Clark in the stockade, asking him a series of specific questions he knew the judge would not be able to answer.
“I sincerely hope you can answer these questions,” averred Biden. “Let me begin with southern Africa—not South Africa, but southern Africa, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique, Angola and so on…. Can you tell me who is the prime minister of South Africa?” Clark answered: “No, sir, I cannot.”
As the cameras clicked and the evening-news crews started salivating, Biden pressed on: “Can you tell me who the prime minister of Zimbabwe is?” Clark: “It would be a guess.”
Senator Biden then ran through other policy specifics, curiously avoiding the Soviet-Cold War issues that Clark knew well. As he did, Biden inter-mixed his questions with feigned apologies. Biden: “I really don’t like doing this, Justice Clark, but I don’t know how else to get at the point.” And a second time:
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