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Old Smirkin’ Joe:

Paul Ryan readies for the Biden Treatment.

By 10.10.12

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I'd like to share a story on Senator Joe Biden that happened 31 years ago, and 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, 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 the Washington 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:

I really apologize, Mr. Justice. I know you are on the spot, and I don't know how else I can do my job. This is one of the most distasteful question-and-answer periods in which I have participated. And, by the way, no one but me, not my staff, suggested that I use this approach… But this issue with regard to you, justice, in my opinion, is not whether or not you are bright. I think you are a bright man…. I have incredible regard for you. I really mean that.

As this went on, Clark's family, which sat nearby, absorbed each Biden jab like a punch to the gut. "I was absolutely fried, furious," said Clark's son Colin. "I turned purple with rage." Another son who was there, Pete, a tough, literal cowboy, intensely proud of his father, to this day recalls how the episode "still hurts."

In fact, Biden "admired" Clark so much, with such "incredible regard," that he finished the grilling by announcing that he would not be supporting his nomination.

For his part, Clark was a paragon of restraint and civility, calmly telling Biden, "I respect that position, senator," before adding, "I just have one point to make." Clark then explained, as he had in his opening statement, that President Reagan did not bring him on board as a policy expert, particularly on individual issue areas. "Regarding making policy," said Clark, "I have discussed this with both the president and the secretary [Al Haig]. Perhaps I did not make that clear, or maybe you came in a little after my description of what we consider to be the role. My position will not be involved in making policy, but rather in coordinating and implementing in the position as deputy secretary of state."

Clark had indeed made that clear, as did the other senators, who jumped in to reiterate the fact. Even the ultra-liberal Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) rushed to Clark's defense. Biden didn't care.

The damage to Clark was done. Joe Biden may have been "sorry, Judge, really," but he had so humiliated Clark that the judge became the laughing stock of the world, as the international press lampooned him. Most appreciative of Biden's performance were the Soviets, who turned Biden's work into basically a TASS press release.

The press feeding frenzy abated momentarily on February 24, when Clark's appointment came before the full Senate, which easily approved his nomination.

Clark stoically took the beating. A devout man, he seems to have seen it as his cross to bear, as some overdue suffering that he ought to be willing to take. And his humility was such that he never publicly shared Biden's off-camera, quasi-apology to him, which he told to me (his biographer) many years later: Biden casually pulled Clark aside in the hallway, away from reporters, smirked, slapped him on the back, and said, "Hey, Judge, no hard feelings…. And don't worry: I didn't know the answers to those questions either."

This would hardly be the first time that Senator Biden did this sort of thing. He would do similar things to Ed Meese -- with Meese's wife and kids looking on -- when Meese was recommended as attorney general under Reagan, and also to Clarence Thomas, when Thomas was recommended for the Supreme Court. Thomas recounts Biden's treatment of him in his memoirs. There, too, Biden finished the notorious "high-tech lynching" of Thomas with the same no-hard-feelings smile. Call it the Biden Treatment.

That brings me to Paul Ryan, the young running mate of Mitt Romney. What might Paul Ryan expect from a grinning Joe Biden this Thursday evening? My advice is that Ryan be ready for some embarrassing shots. Given that Biden fancies himself a foreign-policy expert, whereas Ryan is not, Ryan might want to prepare for Biden peppering him with questions like those he posed to Bill Clark -- with a salivating press looking on. If that happens, Ryan should quickly remind Biden that (this time) it isn't his job to ask the questions. Or, maybe Ryan could ask Biden if knows the current level of the federal debt, especially over the last four years.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.