BOWLING GREEN – Champ Clark still has something to teach us — at least according to his great-grandson.
Ben Clark, the great-grandson of the Speaker of the House and just-about president will speak Saturday at the ribbon-cutting of the new Champ Clark Bridge. Bowling Green Rotarians heard a preview of his remarks at their regular meeting Tuesday.
“Many of the issues facing us today were facing us 107 years ago [during Champ Clark’s 1912 presidential campaign]. Particularly folks who live out in more rural areas,” Ben Clark said. “Concentration of money in large, often east coast but not exclusively any more metropolitan areas, the effect of tariffs — a lot of these issues remain the same.”
Ben Clark walked residents through a brief narrative of Champ Clark’s life: from poor beginnings to an impetuous but precocious youth to his career as a political powerhouse.
His most notable accomplishment, in Ben Clark’s estimation, was fighting to democratize the House of Representatives, which had been ruled with an iron fist from the Speaker’s office — even knowing that it would weaken his position if he ever took the Speaker’s gavel.
Champ Clark did not necessarily anticipated the construction of the bridge that has honored him for almost a century.
“I don’t think they owned a car,” Ben Clark said. “I’m sure they, when they heard there was a bridge, they probably lobbied and said, ‘why don’t you name it after Champ?’ I don’t know it for a fact.”
The bridge did represent a concrete-and-steel symbol of one element of Champ Clark’s political career: his appetite for working across divides. He frequented Illinois on his lecture circuit, and maintained a health relationship with Illinois Republicans, despite his unquestioned status as a democratic stalwart.
“He was very popular even among his foes. Many of his closest friends were Illinois Congressmen of the Republican party who he would ferociously debate yet there was a sort of tenderness between them,” Ben Clark said.
“It seems like in our society we build plenty of walls but not nearly enough bridges.” Champ. “Champ was a bridge-builder in a lot of ways, but particularly with opponents of his, the Republican Congressman who lived just on the other side of that bridge and beyond.”
“To me, that’s an important symbol as we gather to cut the ribbon on the third,” Ben Clark said.
Ben Clark said his family followed the question of the new bridge’s name with “great interest verging on great concern” — alert to the possibility that the bridge name might be nabbed for a more contemporary political figure.
“It does us good to know that the bridge is actually going to continue to bear Champ Clark’s name. Frankly, its sort of an upset victory,” Ben Clark said.
Ben Clark is a lawyer at behemoth St. Louis law firm firm Bryan Cave Leighton Peisner. He serves on the board of Champ Clark Honeyshuck, which looks after the Congressman’s historic home and tries to interest new generations in his role on the American scene.