By David Van Biema
October 31, 1983 12:00 PM

Shortly after President Ronald Reagan announced that he was appointing his National Security Adviser, William P. Clark, 52, to replace newly resigned Secretary of the Interior James Watt, Clark hunkered down in his basement office in the White House and listened as his phones rang furiously. Knowing that newspapers and networks were scrambling for comment from him—the same media he felt had harassed him for three years—Clark turned to special assistant Richard Morris. “It looks like we’re in for a bad 24 hours,” he said.

He was right. For the next day—and beyond—Washington resounded to the sounds of enraged conservationists and congressmen expressing outrage and dismay at Reagan’s choice for the sensitive post. “It’s an appalling appointment,” said William Turnage, executive director of the Wilderness Society. “Clark knows nothing about the environment.” Predictably, liberal Democrats attacked the appointment; not so predictably, House Republican leader Robert Michel of Illinois termed it “incredible and baffling.” Equally baffled was Nina Negranti, 25, one of Clark’s five children. “This is totally unexpected,” she said. “This job seems so unrelated to the previous one. We were all surprised. But I’m sure there’s a reason for it.”

Perhaps the appointment should not have been so surprising, however. Ronald Reagan has appointed his close friend Bill Clark to seven widely varied government jobs since 1967, and Clark’s qualifications have frequently been questioned. Clark—who dropped out of Stanford University, a Catholic seminary and Loyola Law School before settling into life as a part-time rancher and small-town lawyer—headed Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign in California’s rural Ventura County. After Reagan took office, Clark became his Chief of Staff, a job in which he earned some repute by insisting that public policy issues be reduced to one-page memos for the governor’s perusal. Despite the fact that Clark never finished law school (he passed the bar without benefit of diploma), Reagan next appointed him a California Superior Court judge, then to the State Court of Appeals, then to the California Supreme Court. The appointments were far from universally acclaimed—even among Clark’s colleagues. “As of now,” said then State Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Wright of the 1972 nomination, “he is not qualified by education, training or experience.”

After Reagan was elected President in 1980, his transition team approached Clark about various jobs—including Secretary of Agriculture, Attorney General and Director of the CIA. Clark bypassed those honors but later accepted Reagan’s appeal that he take the job of Deputy Secretary of State. He promptly ran into problems at his confirmation hearings. Asked to identify the prime minister of South Africa, he replied, “No, sir, I cannot.” Asked to name the prime minister of Zimbabwe, he said, “It would be a guess.” Asked his opinion of nuclear non-proliferation, he replied, “I do not have a personal view.” Despite outraged reaction from several continents—a Dutch newspaper called him a “nitwit”—Clark was confirmed by the Senate. Eleven months later Reagan promoted him to National Security Adviser, which disturbed many.

On the job, however, Clark managed to win over some of his critics by sheer hard work, putting in 16-hour workdays six or seven days a week. The schedule left little time for wife Joan, 52, or their small, picture-crammed Washington apartment. His most famous predecessor in the post was impressed. “He is an acquired taste for me, but I am high on Bill Clark,” said Henry Kissinger last summer. “He’s learning enormously rapidly and he does not get in beyond his depth. He knows what he knows and he knows what he doesn’t know.”

But Clark soon found himself enmeshed in the internal squabblings of the Administration, embroiled in an intermittent feud with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver. “They have been fighting on and off for the past year,” says a source close to both men. Recently, even Nancy Reagan’s goodwill wavered. “She still hasn’t gotten over the assassination attempt on the President’s life,” says the source, “and she was angry that Clark kept insisting that the President should not cancel his trip to the Philippines.” Clark soon began to long openly for the quiet of his 888-acre ranch. “In the end,” says the source, “he was really burned out and tired of having to watch his ass.”

As early as last year, Clark told Reagan that he wanted out, but the President—who clearly values Clark as a loyalist and troubleshooter—convinced him to stay on. With Watt’s resignation, the post of Secretary of the Interior opened up as a kind of refuge for Clark, who will be replaced as National Security Adviser by his deputy, Robert McFarlane. “The Interior post was a way of continuing to serve Ronald Reagan without the total emotional and physical burnout,” says Clark’s friend. “But, all things considered, I think he would rather be back at his ranch.”