In Memoriam

Remembering Lawrence Walsh

Call him impeccable—or despicable?

By 3.21.14

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Lawrence Walsh, the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, died two days ago at the age of 102. American liberals adored Walsh in life and now sing hosannas to him in death.

“Lawrence E. Walsh, a former federal judge … who as an independent counsel exposed the lawbreaking in the Reagan administration that gave rise to the Iran-contra scandal, died on Wednesday at his home in Oklahoma City,” said the lead in the New York Times. Walsh’s admirers, reported the Times (no doubt one among them), “saw him as a model of rectitude, a public servant trying to uphold the rule of law and demonstrate that even powerful government officials were not above it.”

The Times described Walsh as “tall,” “elegant,” “impeccable,” and emphasized that Walsh was a Republican—or, as the Washington Post underscored in its obituary, a Republican of “impeccable credentials.” The Times scared up a 1995 NPR interview with a “Judge George E. MacKinnon, one of the three federal judges who chose Mr. Walsh to be independent counsel.” MacKinnon, it seems, “was incensed at the criticism leveled at Mr. Walsh.” “The reason Republicans are against him is because he convicted Republicans,” said MacKinnon. He said Walsh sacrificed a “good life” to serve the nation. “No one could have done it better.”

Well, some beg to differ.

I never met Lawrence Walsh, but a man whom I knew extremely well did. He was William P. “Bill” Clark, also known as Judge Clark. Clark was made a judge by Ronald Reagan, all the way to the level of the California Supreme Court. Clark had been Reagan’s chief of staff as governor and went on to serve President Reagan as deputy secretary of state, national security adviser, and secretary of the interior. Reagan effectively offered Clark the U.S. Supreme Court seat that instead went to Sandra Day O’Connor. Clark turned it down, not wanting to spend the remainder of his life in Washington.

I first met Bill Clark in the summer of 2001. I eventually became his biographer. My family and I spent more than one summer at Clark’s ranch in central California. I spent countless hours one-on-one with Clark, and thousands more by phone. He was the kindest, humblest, most charitable man you could ever meet.

All of which brings me to Lawrence Walsh. In all of my time with Bill Clark, he never said a negative word about anyone. He bent over backwards to try to understand the most unfair individuals and nastiest criticisms. He liked everyone. He never got angry. There was, however, one exception: Lawrence Walsh.

One day we were discussing Iran-Contra and the special prosecutor’s pursuit of Ronald Reagan, Cap Weinberger, and the others. I asked Clark: “What did you think of Lawrence Walsh?” His eyes flared up, his teeth clenched, he looked at me in a way I hadn’t seen before, and then he lost his usual judicial temperament. “Despicable,” said Clark.

I was taken aback. Judge Clark proceeded to explain himself.

Clark was still troubled by Walsh’s shocking announcement the weekend before the November 1992 election. Walsh had announced that Cap Weinberger and others were about to be indicted because of the Iran-Contra scandal. It was a sudden and stunning last-minute politicization of a prolonged ordeal. Liberals loved it because it helped them immensely in the presidential race.

After an intense battle, President George H. W. Bush had finally pulled into a tie in the polls with Democratic nominee Governor Bill Clinton. He just might pull off the win. Then came the announcement from Walsh. Governor Mario Cuomo (D-NY) quickly dashed to the TV cameras to warn Americans that, in light of the announcement, a Bush re-election might mean a terrible mess—a presidential impeachment in the second term. Between the weekend announcement and the Tuesday vote, Bush slipped six points in the polls. He was defeated.

A week later, on November 13, 1992, Clark sent a letter to former President Reagan at his Los Angeles office. The occasion was the surge of press reports that Reagan himself, and President Bush, might be called to testify on Iran-Contra.

For Clark, this was way over the top. He was very upset with Independent Counsel Walsh for taking this step. But there was more to it. Clark was particularly disturbed at how Walsh had treated Cap Weinberger. Weinberger had retained both Clark and Robert Bennett as co-counsel to represent him.

As Weinberger’s pro bono legal counsel, Clark went to Oklahoma to meet with Walsh. Speaking as a former judge to judge, Clark tried to persuade the independent counsel that his actions were unjust—or, as Weinberger later put it, “absurd and terribly damaging.”

Clark was shocked by Walsh’s response. He concluded that Walsh was interested in only one thing: some kind of admission of guilt by Weinberger, or as Weinberger put it: “preferably something—anything—that implicated President Reagan or even Vice President Bush. If I would give that, the independent counsel’s office could then arrange for no indictment and a light sentence.”

Weinberger and Clark concluded that Walsh’s team wanted Weinberger to be “cooperative” as Walsh and his lawyers pursued Ronald Reagan. This push for “cooperation,” Weinberger was told by Clark, was accompanied by a wink and a nudge. Clark vehemently objected, telling Walsh that Weinberger would be lying if he pleaded guilty to something he had not done.

Clark was quite displeased. He told me that Walsh “wanted to get the president [Reagan] and the vice president [Bush] by making a deal with Weinberger. It was analogous to bribery.”

I read and still have Clark’s November 13, 1992 letter to Reagan. He requested that Reagan appeal directly to Bush for pardons. And Bush was president for only a few more weeks. Clark wrote:

Dear Mr. President:

Beginning in 1966, I have always attempted to give my best counsel toward protecting both you and the nation. Working together, we were usually successful. I further recognize that since leaving your Administration, you have neither requested nor required my counsel. However, in concern for both your personal interest and that of our nation, I point out the following critical situation.

In response to my 1987 pardon recommendation (attached), other advisors urged you to allow the Iran-Contra matter to “take its course.” It has. I have spent hours with Judge Walsh discussing (former judge to former judge) dismissal of the action in the interests of justice….

Mr. President, it is my considered judgment that you and President Bush will be called to testify in this political travesty come January, resulting in unjust and grievous harm to the national interests as well as to your own. The only correct solution is for President Bush to exercise his Constitutional power of pardon. Were he here, I am confident Bill [William French] Smith would concur. We would recommend you call George Bush.

With great admiration and gratitude, Bill.

Clark’s assessment of the political landscape was correct: Reagan was called to testify, and the results were embarrassing. By that point, we learned later, the cloud of Alzheimer’s had begun to set in on the 40th president. During his testimony, Reagan could not remember the simplest facts and details, whether related or unrelated to Iran-Contra, as the public learned from a transcript released to the press. The president’s enemies had a field day. Editorial cartoonists caricatured him with a quizzical look rattling off a bunch of, “Gee, I don’t recall’s.”

The left always had a hearty laugh at Ronald Reagan’s alleged cluelessness and stupidity, and now, at long last, they had a delightful case study to howl up.

Clark’s motivation was also to spare Weinberger, who now faced five felony charges from Walsh for allegedly lying to Congressional committees. Weinberger was accused of concealing a private diary that prosecutors, according to the New York Times, said contained incriminating evidence—a claim that was made (interestingly) without having read the concealed private diary.

In Clark’s view, Weinberger was being railroaded. Weinberger’s supporters maintained that he had opposed the deal with Iran in internal administration deliberations. Now, he was scheduled to go on trial on January 5—yet another intense grilling. His legal costs to Robert Bennett could exceed $1 million. In addition to urging a pardon, Clark, along with Jeane Kirkpatrick and Frank Carlucci, led an effort to help Weinberger pay those costs.

I could say much more, but readers will not want too much minutiae here. (These details come from my biography of Clark, where there are more.) Back to Lawrence Walsh.

For all of this, Lawrence Walsh was a hero to the New York Times and liberals. They embraced him for what he did to Ronald Reagan and Cap Weinberger. They loved him life and now hail him at his death—a model of judicial impeccability. But some, including the late Judge Bill Clark, firmly dissented from that opinion.

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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.