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  Clarke arrived at Penn in the fall of 1968, when assassinations, riots, and the Vietnam War were threatening to rip apart the fabric of American society.

“It’s very hard to convey to students today the palpable sense of revolution that was in the air,” he says now. “Penn itself was changing, very significantly and very rapidly, and we were part of that. And then the world was changing, very significantly, very rapidly—and very negatively. Because it was such a tumultuous experience, it was hard, frankly, to have a calm academic experience. I had a good time, even a great time at Penn, but I frankly think I learned more from my fellow students than I did from the professors.”

His fellow freshmen elected him to the University of Pennsylvania Student Government (UPSG) not long after he and several hundred others got a nasty case of food poisoning from the fare in Houston Hall.

“I got up the next morning and went to City Hall and filed a complaint with the public-health office, which immediately came to campus,” he recalls. “They found that, in fact, the University was serving up rancid meat. Being identified as the guy that did that gave me a certain amount of popularity among the freshman class.”

In one of his first UPSG meetings, Clarke listened to a speech given by an upperclassman named Steve Marmon C’71 WG’81 excoriating the UPSG treasurer, who had proposed a cut in funding to The Daily Pennsylvanian. In order to drive his point home, Marmon borrowed a speech by a well-known orator that began: “How long, O [name redacted], will you abuse our patience?”

The words sounded awfully familiar to Clarke, who buttonholed Marmon as soon as he had finished.

“I said, ‘You ripped off Cicero’s First Address Against Catiline!’” Clarke recalls. “Steve said something like, ‘Wow! You know that—that’s great! Let’s go have a beer!’”

It would not be the last time Clarke would see through a politician’s rhetoric, but in this case it was the beginning of an enduring friendship: Clarke was best man at Marmon’s wedding, and is godfather to Marmon’s daughter.

It was also the beginning of a powerful troika—Marmon, Clarke, and William Tortu C’72—that virtually ruled the UPSG. During his years in student government, Clarke served on the steering committee of University Council, and co-authored, with Marmon, the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE) Report in 1971, which led to some important reforms in the curriculum. Clarke was elected to Sphinx his junior year.

“He really was one of the outstanding people on campus,” says Marmon. “You saw his leadership ability at a very early stage.”

As war loomed over the nation’s campuses, Clarke became a leader in Penn’s anti-war movement. “By 1969 the Vietnam War had radicalized me,” he says. Things came to a head on April 30, 1970, when President Nixon announced that the U.S. had invaded Cambodia.

“Nixon surprised everyone by announcing the invasion of Cambodia,” says Clarke. “We didn’t really know what we wanted to do, but we knew that we wanted to have a rally. Somebody had a bullhorn, so we went around that night telling people to hold a rally on College Green.”

At one point they went to Irvine Auditorium, where a certain soft-porn movie was being screened.

I Am Curious, Yellow or something was showing in Irvine Auditorium,” Clarke says with a hint of a smile. “I remember standing up on the stage, and the movie being projected onto me, and I had this bullhorn yelling at people that they all had to leave the movie and go rally out on College Green. Which they did.” After some impassioned speeches on the Green, Clarke and the other students and professors marched to Independence Hall, where speaker after speaker denounced the president, the invasion of Cambodia, and the war.

Unlike most protesters, Clarke’s response after graduating from Penn in 1972 was not to shun the military but to try to find a way to help it—and the civilian leadership—get back on the right track and “stop stupid wars.”

“I’d wanted to go into government since high school, but the war experience was so disturbing to us all that I asked myself, ‘How do I make a small contribution to preventing that kind of thing from happening again?’” he says now. “And the place you’d have the most effect was the Pentagon. Everyone’s reaction was, ‘They’ll never hire you.’”

Everyone was wrong. Clarke was hired as a management-trainee in the office of the Secretary of Defense. It was the beginning of a long association with the military: In his early years in government he reported to officers; later on, they reported to him. Some became his friends, including John Gordon and the late Wayne Downing, both majors when he met them who went on to become four-star generals.

Having seen the military in many crisis situations over the years, he found it to be a “remarkably capable organization when used effectively, when it can channel the strength of its great people,” Clarke writes in Your Government Failed You. “The years of watching our top officers created a deep respect in me for our military leaders, but I also know that they are like civilians in one important respect: They are not infallible.”

What he tried to do at the Pentagon, and later in the State Department and the NSC, he explains, was to “make sure that decisions were the result of really good, open-minded analysis, and all the information you could possibly get, rather than preconceived notions.”

During his Pentagon years he also learned about the diplomatic side, at one point serving with John F. Lehman Jr. Gr’74, future secretary of the Navy, in the Mutual Balanced Force Reduction negotiations with the Soviet Union. Lehman remembers Clarke as a “highly intelligent and competent professional” during their plenary sessions with the Warsaw Pact in Vienna, where there was “plenty of time to socialize” in diplomatic circles.

“Dick was very effective in the social scene—I mean that in a professional way, finding out what was going on,” says Lehman. “I thought he was a very fine diplomat.” The two would cross paths again three decades later during the 9/11 Commission hearings.

By 1979 Clarke had moved to the State Department as a senior analyst for European arms control. There he met Rand Beers, a former Marine who had recently joined the Foreign Service and later served on the NSC with Clarke. Beers remembers the sense of dread that filled the office when Clarke went on vacation.

“He would come back with a long To Do list for everybody who worked for him,” says Beers, who now co-teaches the Terrorism and the American Response class with Clarke at Harvard and is the founding president of the nonprofit National Security Network. “He always hated to be away from the action. He was on vacation when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, and he kept calling from vacation to find out what was going on.” The joke around the office, Beers adds, was: “We can’t afford to have you go on vacation because it might lead to some crisis we haven’t even thought about.”

By 1983 Clarke was working out of the State Department’s “Little Pentagon,” the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. “Thrown into both the Beirut and Grenada operations to plan and coordinate, I was amazed at the ease with which the decision was made to deploy our military and what little precision there was on what it was to do,” he writes. “More frightening was the obvious lack of planning for the kind of operation the forces were being asked to conduct.”

As he powered himself through the ranks to become deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence under Ronald Reagan and assistant secretary of state under George H. W. Bush, Clarke combined a fierce intelligence with a willingness to “break china.”

“Strong opinions are the norm when it comes to Dick Clarke,” wrote Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus in The Washington Post four years ago, noting that during the Clinton years, then-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger “regularly had to turn down demands from colleagues that Clarke be fired.”

R.P. Eddy, the founder and executive director of the Center for Policing Terrorism and CEO of Ergo, a policy advisory firm, worked under Clarke for half a dozen years in the NSC as director of counterterrorism and other posts.

“Dick is famous or infamous, depending on which side of the argument you sit, in the U.S. government for not suffering fools, and being absolutely laser-focused on results,” says Eddy. “And that meant that there are lots of people who have Dick Clarke’s tread-marks on their foreheads.” But those who bad-mouth him, Eddy adds, “are generally the less competent people in government.”

Over the years Clarke’s bosses “have given him their confidence, because when he is given tasks he not only carries them out effectively; he carries them out creatively as well,” says Beers. “It certainly gave him a reputation for having sharp elbows when he was displeased with the way that somebody was performing. But that was generally with his peers. He’s incredibly loyal to the people who work for him, in terms of mentoring and fostering their careers.”

“He’s extraordinarily decent to the people on his team,” agrees Eddy. “One expression that I’ve heard about Dick is: He’s the only person I’ve ever met who pisses up and kisses down.”

National Insecurity By Samuel Hughes

Your Government Needs
to Get Its Act Together

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Last modified 11/04/08