Saying goodbye to a giant in government journalism: Charlie Clark, 1953-2023
Clark, a former senior correspondent for GovExec, died Wednesday after a brief illness.
At GovExec, we lost one of the literal and figurative giants of our world this week. And so did the world of journalism focused on the federal government.
Charlie Clark died Wednesday at the age of 70 after a brief illness.
Charlie was a reporter of the old school. He worked sources relentlessly, uncovered angles that others missed, and paid attention to what was happening even at what were considered backwaters of the federal bureaucracy. I vividly remember the animated newsroom discussions we had about his insistence that goings-on at the Chemical Safety Board were worthy of ongoing coverage.
Charlie also had a special fondness for and belief in whistleblowers, patiently listening to them make their cases, and then painstakingly seeking to verify their claims. His professionalism and dogged pursuit of stories made him an exemplar in our newsroom of journalism done well. And if he usually lost his battles in defense of the use of passive voice in his writing, it wasn’t for lack of energetic effort.
I met Charlie when he was working as an editor at National Journal in the late 1980s. He had already been a researcher at Time-Life Books and would go on to stints at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the National Center on Education and the Economy.
When we needed a fill-in editor at GovExec in 2009, Charlie brought much-needed experience and stability to our operation at a time when it was characterized by youthful exuberance. I quickly moved to bring him on full-time.
Later, I asked Charlie to serve as senior correspondent, heading up our reporting corps. He was cagey about the offer, and finally allowed as to how he didn’t think he could keep pace with the up-and-coming generation. “I can’t crank out a story every day like these young ones do,” he told me.
He was wrong. He attacked the job with gusto, writing not only a story per day, but often two or three. By the end of his tenure in June 2019, he had produced more than 5,000 articles for us, ranging from Office of Management and Budget reports on federal contracting to a thorough history of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. His profile of Hilary Clinton, prepared in 2016 in the event she was elected president, remains one of the best pieces we never published.
On tight deadlines, Charlie produced fully reported, detailed analyses—sometimes a little too detailed. Among the things he was legendary for was the length of his stories. “Cut 500 words, please,” read the inscription on the cake we presented to him on his retirement.
Charlie also was legendary for his struggles with technology, and at-times-credulous encounters with scammers offering help with his computer issues. “What do you need my Social Security number for?” he was once overheard to say over the phone. “No, no, no!” rang out voices in the newsroom. “Charlie, hang up the phone!”
He loved covering federal agencies almost as much as writing about his beloved hometown of Arlington, Va. In addition to his day job, he served as “Our Man in Arlington” columnist for the Falls Church News-Press for years, and wrote several books on the history of the suburb. He even managed to craft a compelling biography of George Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis, whose accomplishments were, shall we say, a bit scant. (“He was not a great man,” Charlie acknowledged in the book’s introduction.)
Charlie himself delighted in meeting great men and women. His tales of celebrity encounters were always related with the wide-eyed wonder of a kid meeting one of his heroes.
In both physical stature and his work, Charlie stood tall and proud.
“Nothing’s gonna change my world,” John Lennon of Charlie’s beloved Beatles sang in “Across the Universe.” With respect, that’s just not true when someone like Charlie leaves us. I prefer a lyric by Bruce Springsteen, another of Charlie’s favorites: “They say you can’t take it with you, but I think that they’re wrong. Because all I know is I woke up this morning and something big was gone.”
Tom Shoop is the former editor in chief at GovExec.