Thursday, May 14, 2009
Lessons from a life well lived....
A great lady passed away in late April, someone you may not have known. Joan Brauner Clark, wife of William P. Clark, “Bill” Clark to those of us who know him, succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Joan was 77 – and we know that her memory has already become a blessing for those of us who remain.
So ‘Joan Clark’ doesn’t ring a bell? You have to think back to the Good Ole Days, way back when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California. Those of us who worked with The Gipper in those days honored his Chief of Staff, Bill Clark, almost as much as we admired Ronald Reagan himself.
What I remember of his wife Joan is that she was a lovely, proper lady, always nicely dressed – even when the rest of us came casual to staff get-togethers on the banks of the Sacramento River, Joan was perfectly turned out in dress and heels. She was energetic and outgoing, and spoke with an accent I couldn’t quite place.
That tells you how little I knew about her.
The real story of her life came to light yesterday when a friend forwarded an appreciation written by Dr. Paul Kengor, political science professor and author of the definitive biography of Bill Clark, “The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand”.
Bill Clark was Governor Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff, but more importantly, he was our leader’s most devoted kindred spirit, his best friend as well as close advisor. After winning the Presidency, Pres. Reagan appointed him as National Security Advisor then as Secretary of the Interior.
Among the Reagan loyalists, it’s almost impossible to overstate his importance. To the world, he was even more. Dr. Kengor calls him “the quiet Catholic who changed the world.”
Thanks to Dr. Kengor, we now understand how large a role his wife Joan played in “changing of the world”.
Joan was born in Czechoslovakia in 1931 – which foreshadows the whole story. Her early life was peaceful and wonderful, she said, right up until 1938 when the Nazis arrived.
After the Anschluss in March, 1938, Hitler next looked to Czechoslovakia for annexation. What rationale did he use? That ethnic German populations living in the northern and western borders were suffering. It was a matter of justice that they be annexed, he claimed.
What did he really want? The whole thing. By incorporating the border areas, the Sudetenland, into Nazi Germany, the rest of the country would be rendered powerless to resist occupation. Then he’d grab that, too.
The Nazis came. Joan’s first memory of them was watching them set fire to a beautiful old synagogue.
Ultimately Hitler was defeated, although that didn’t end the suffering for the people of Czechoslovakia. The land mass was turned over to the Stalinists, and in the process, the Brauner family became “DP’s” – Displaced Persons. Political refugees, people driven out of their homes by force and fear, made to run for their lives even though they had no safe haven to run to.
In 1945, when Europe and America were celebrating V-E Day, the Brauner family lost everything. One day a Communist official showed up and said, “You have until tomorrow morning to pack all your bags and leave.”
Forced to walk over a mountain range into East Germany, with everything the family owned piled into a handcart, the Brauner's struggled. It’s not as though they had any choice.
The walk up the mountain was a nightmare, as Kengor recounts:
“(M)any collapsed from dehydration, and some died on the spot. The family took refuge in the home of relatives. That first night they encountered more cruelty from the Russians: drunken soldiers pounded the door demanding vodka. Joan, her mother, and the other girls quivered inside. “It was well known that Russian soldiers raped girls from 5 to 80 years of age,” recalled Joan. Her father pushed them to the roof.
Although the Russians didn’t find the girls, they discovered and seized their documents—their precious passports to freedom.
‘It was devastating, Joan said, 60 years later. ‘In Germany, if you stood in front of a government official with no birth certificate or official papers, you simply did not exist.’”
Joan’s real liberation came in 1952, when the petite 21-year old took a train to East Berlin, managed to cross into West Berlin, then bluffed her way aboard a plane to Hamburg, West Germany. There, she eventually met and married a young GI, Bill Clark, on May 5, 1955 in Basel, Switzerland. They returned to Bill’s family home in Ventura, California.
For the Clarks, the connection with Ronald Reagan came in 1964. Bill and Joan went to a Goldwater rally at the LA Sports Coliseum where they heard Ronald Reagan’s electrifying speech. ‘This is it, this is the man,’” Joan said. If Reagan would run for office, they’d not only support him, but work in his campaign.
Goldwater lost, but Ronald Reagan ran for Governor and won. Bill Clark became Governor Reagan’s chief of staff, then served on the California Superior Court bench, then as Associate Justice of the California State Supreme Court. Later, as National Security Advisor, both he and Joan, she well in the background – were instrumental in laying out the plan that would shut down the Evil Empire and eliminate the threat of world-wide Communist domination.
"Joan's experience is what burned the hatred of communism into Bill Clark," wrote Sal Russo, also a close confidant at the time. "It was that shared feeling that helped create the bond with Reagan, and thus the two of them devised the strategy for destroying the Soviet Union and the threat from world communism. So Joan was a key component in our victory in the cold war."
After all, as Kengor points out, for Joan, totalitarianism, Communism, was not a theory. She had lived under it. No one knew better than she did what happened when totalitarians took control and bent civilian populations to their vicious will.
Read Dr. Kengor’s entire tribute here:
In thinking about Joan’s experiences in Czechoslovakia, it occurs to me that right now, we in Israel are hovering in much the same position as did Czechoslovakia did in 1938.
American and European policy toward Israel today – forcing us to permit a terrorist state to be created within our tiny borders – is eerily similar to that applied by the English and French, when they pressured Czechoslovakia to yield to German demands to give up the strategically important mountains of the Sudetenland.
‘Cede the territory’, they insisted back then, saying it was necessary to respond to the alleged grievances of ethnic residents.
‘Cede the territory’, we’re being told, even though it would leave the rest of the country militarily indefensible.
But we know what happened in Czechoslovakia – and then in Europe and then throughout the entire world. Force us to cede territory and the same thing will happen again, today. It will not stop the terrorists. It will only encourage them.
Fanatical leaders -- be they the old German and Soviet dictators or today’s Islamists – who are bent on world domination cannot be appeased. Throwing small countries at them, in an attempt to satisfy them, doesn’t work.
Quite the contrary – they sense weakness and are energized by it. They renew their resolve to take over the world, country by country, anywhere people are too weak – or too naïve – to resist.
We can only hope that as Prime Minister Netanyahu travels to the US to meet with the Community Organizer, that he will have the strength, courage and wisdom to stand firm against the pressure that will be applied.
You can’t appease a tyrant. That’s never worked, and it won’t work now. All that will happen is that Israel will become a 21st Century Czechoslovakia.
Joan Clark would have known that better than anyone else.