ONEONTAN’S ‘LIFE OF PRINCIPLE’ EXPLORED BOLD LEGACY
‘Tell me about the War on Poverty,” Saddam Hussein asked Ramsey Clark when they met in Baghdad on Nov. 12, 1990 to negotiate a hostage release, Oneonta filmmaker Joe Stillman recalled in an interview this week.
In reply, Clark, who had been President Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general in the 1960s, told how one afternoon LBJ, “War on Poverty” creator, showed up in his Justice Department office “out of the blue.”
“Johnson started talking about Mexican-American children who would arrive at school with bloody feet,” having walked barefoot across sharp stones to get to class, Stillman reported.
As the president spoke, he began to cry, Clark told Stillman.
“You know,” Saddam replied, “that doesn’t seem quite right. How could he be concerned about children with bloody feet when 2 million people were dying in Vietnam because of U.S. bombing?”
“That was one of the lessons of Ramsey’s life,” said Stillman, who spent “hundreds of hours” with the former attorney general producing the prize-winning “Citizen Clark: A Life of Principle,” (2017). “We think we all have a strong allegiance to our country, but there are a lot of things being done that not everyone knows about.
“He had the obligation to point these things out,” Stillman said of Clark, who died Friday, April 9, at age 93 in his Manhattan home. The New York Times headlined the obituary, “A rebel with a cause.”
Stillman, who produced the only full documentary of Ramsey Clark’s life, first interviewed the globe-circling human-rights interventionist in 2005 while filming “From Mills River to Babylon and Back: The Jimmy Massey Story”, about an Iraq War veteran.
The next year, the Roxbury Arts Group’s president, Sue Kenny, asked Stillman to invite Clark up to Delaware County for a screening of “Back to Babylon.”
During the Q&A, an audience member said, “It sounds to me you aren’t too optimistic about the future of the United States.”
“Quite the contrary,” Clark replied. “I am an optimist (about the U.S.) But I’m not talking just about the United States.
I’m talking about the survival of mankind on the planet as we know it.
“You won’t have to worry about the United States.”
That global perspective impressed Stillman, and the two men spent eight hours in conversation driving back and forth between Manhattan and Roxbury.
Stillman discovered another affinity: Clark’s wife Georgia grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, three doors down from his grandparents. Clark and Stillman were both Texans, the first from Dallas, the second from Corpus.
“When I got back to Oneonta,” said Stillman, who’s now living in Gilbertsville, “I started looking up stuff that Ramsey had done: 27 U.S interventions in over 120 counties. He had represented all these amazing groups and people.
“His whole life was a commitment to the cause of peace, justice and human rights.”
On the one hand, Clark represented Kent State students, the Berrigans and Plowshares; on the other, Saddam Hussein at the tribunal that resulted in the Iraq dictator’s 2006 hanging.
“Justice has to prevail for everybody,” Clark believed, Stillman explained, “regardless of whether or not they are good guys or bad guys.”
It took Stillman seven years to complete “Life of Principle.” He said, “I spent two weeks with him, 10-12 times. His life was so complicated.”
It sometimes took 2-3 years to compile footage. For instance, “a speech he gave to 100,000 people in Belgrade.” Or film from North Vietnam, which Clark visited after stepping down as attorney general, apologizing to the Vietnamese people for his nation’s role there, inspiring cries of “traitor.”
“Ultimately, for me, it boiled down to: this is a man who truly loved America – and recognized its inherent faults,” said Stillman. “He had to be the conscience of our country, because there were so
many injustices and so many think he felt this country was doing it shouldn’t have been.
“…If there’s one thing Ramsey felt strongly about, it was the influence of big money and special interests on American policy.
That led to corruption that affected millions of people. The consequence is a loss of life.”
Clark entered the national stage in the 1960s, when LBJ appointed him attorney general, and throughout his tenure he defended the U.S. role in Vietnam. Some obituaries concluded his later life was “atonement” for his Vietnam Era role, but Stillman disagrees.
For instance, when Clark brought charges of promoting draft resistance against The Boston Five, it wasn’t just against a Yale graduate student involved, it was against prominent defendants like Dr. Benjamin Spock, the childcare guru, and William Sloane Coffin, Union Theological Seminary’s prominent president.
“He felt these were well-known and respected individuals who had the means to be able to fight the government,” said Stillman. “…The whole idea was to bring attention to people’s legitimate concerns about the war.”
“We won the case, that was the worst part,” Clark was quoted as saying.
In the end, though, the Justice Department lost the case on appeal, said Stillman. “He was motivated by the right thing to do.”