South African government spent money to defeat Senator Dick Clark

Who in the Bleeding Heartland community remembers Dick Clark, the Democrat Iowans elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972? Clark lost his 1978 re-election bid to Roger Jepsen (whom Tom Harkin defeated in 1984). David Rogers published a fascinating story at Politico this week about Senator Clark’s work as chair of the African Affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He knew little about Africa before taking the position but learned quickly. In 1976, he sponsored an amendment to prohibit U.S. covert assistance for paramilitary operations in Angola, but he told Rogers that his larger goal was "disassociate us from apartheid and from South Africa."

It was a time when Republican challenger Roger Jepsen felt free to taunt the Democrat as “the senator from Africa.” Tensions were such that the State Department called in a South African Embassy official in May for making disparaging remarks about Clark in Iowa. And after Clark lost, South Africa’s ousted information secretary, Eschel Rhoodie, said his government invested $250,000 to defeat Clark, who had become a thorn in the side of the white regime.

Jepsen denied any knowledge of South Africa’s alleged role. Nor does Clark accuse him of such. But 35 years after, Clark has no doubt that the apartheid government led by Prime Minister B. J. Vorster wanted him out – and had a hand in his defeat.

Clark’s liberal record and support of the Panama Canal Treaty, which narrowly cleared the Senate in the spring of 1978, also hurt his chances in Iowa. But the fatal blow was a fierce wave of late-breaking ground attacks from anti-abortion forces-something even conservative writers like Robert Novak had not anticipated in a published column weeks before.

I remember Jepsen running attack ads about the Panama Canal (“I voted to keep what is rightfully ours”), but I didn’t know the South African government was so vested in Clark’s defeat. Rogers describes how Clark tried to steer U.S. policy away from supporting the apartheid regime even after losing his re-election campaign. He worked with the Aspen Institute during the 1980s and 1990s to “to try to get a get a cadre of Congress who would know about South Africa and what was going on in South Africa.” I highly recommend reading the whole story.

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    Henry Bellmon, Charles Percy, James Pearson and Howard Baker all voted for that treaty.  Although the four GOPers I just listed were reasonable people that you could work with, it was unfair to treat a vote for this as way out of the mainstream.  Different era though of course and there were rational arguments on both sides.

    Clark probably got caught in a somewhat similar situation to what Dick Lugar faced in 2012, “too interested in foreign affairs.  Gotta take care of the folks back home.  

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