NEW HAMPSHIRE — More than a year ago Wesley Clark came to the University of New Hampshire, ostensibly to discuss his book Waging Modern War and the current crisis in Iraq. At the time I was stringing for a local paper, and had to beg for time to cover it. My editor hadn’t heard of Clark, and told me that if I went there was no guarantee my story would end up in print.
At UNH that evening, Clark was escorted by heavy hitters from the New Hampshire Democratic Party and proceeded to give as fiery stump speech as any I’ve seen. Eventually a truncated version of my story ran in the paper, with everything I wrote about the possibility of Clark running for president cut out as “speculation.”
Well, times certainly have changed, and so has Wesley Clark. The man whose early campaign missteps led pundits to write him off is now drawing crowds roughly the same size as Howard Dean. No one else is even coming close. In Portsmouth on Saturday he filled a local church with 700 people, and more struggled to listen from the outside. On Monday I drove out to see Clark speak again, this time at a retirement community in Exeter. It was a terrible day — sleet and snow trading blows, and cars off the road at every turn — and yet, when I arrived, there were 150 huddled together waiting for the general.
After getting my bearings I went over to the press area to chat with a couple of local reporters I know, and introduce myself to the rest. Half the reporters there were not reporters at all, but emissaries from other campaigns.
BEFORE LONG THE LIGHTS went down, and the seniors in the crowd put on their special headsets — it was movie time. A 30-minute infomercial on the life of Wes Clark lit up a large screen. It’s a touching portrait, exploring Clark’s reasons for serving his country, what it was like or him to leave his pregnant wife and go off to war, where he earned a Silver Star for retaining command of his troops in a jungle firefight despite being seriously wounded.
When the lights came up, at least a quarter of the crowd was in tears. The opposition research guy from the Kerry campaign sitting next to me himself looked ready to cry, but likely for a different reason. The Clark campaign is buying television time to air this movie weekly. There is little here any of Clark’s opponents could effectively counter. Clark opposed the war in Iraq, yes; but he lambastes the Sixties counterculture for failing to understand “duty, honor, country” — a clear (and likely effective) appeal to McCain independents.
It’s not just the movie, either. Clark the candidate is much more comfortable in campaign skin these days than earlier in his candidacy. Right off he acknowledges that his campaign started with the Four Nos: “No money, no staff, no position papers, and no previous elective experience.” Nevertheless, Clark has learned to promise like a politician.
Under President Clark, there will be a national health care plan and a “real” prescription drug benefit. (The benefit Bush just signed was “a poison pill, a Trojan Horse, and it’s going to destroy Medicare.” The AARP, who supported it? “Sellouts.”) When Clark is president “we’ll have success in Iraq.” Poor households will see their income increase by $3,000 yearly. The skies and oceans will be clean, and the United States will sign the Kyoto Accords. John Ashcroft will face the music for his “uses and abuses” of power. Around the world, we will once again be loved, as well. “The world doesn’t hate us, they just don’t like George W. Bush,” Clark assures us. “Europe is just waiting for me to get elected so I can go over there and fix our ties.”
The opposition Clark dismisses with little fanfare, or logic. What of the questions of integrity raised by his fellow officers? “What you’ve got today is a few retired generals who are jealous because I’m running for president,” Clark said. On the Republican Party’s touting of “family values” (Has this happened recently?), Clark proclaims, “You can’t have family values if you don’t have jobs. You can’t have family values if you can’t get to the doctor’s office.” I guess that’s why during the Great Depression we had such a hedonistic, violent culture, and during the Nineties technology boom families really came together.
Asked about faith’s place in the Democratic Party, Clark said. “We actually care about other people and take care of them. That’s the right kind of faith. Not religion but taking care of other people.” This, he promised, was the position that would win the South.
To sweeten the pot, Clark promised to raise taxes on those making $200,000 or more. Before state income tax, or sales tax, those folks will pay close to 40 percent of their income to the federal government. This sacrifice is their “patriotic duty,” according to Clark, and once they know that, they’ll gladly request their taxes be raised. Clark may have voted for Reagan twice, but these are obviously different, more, uh, taxing times.
And what would a Clark event be without some really bonkers proposal, à la the infamous time machine? In response to a question on fuel efficiency, he told a woman that there was “no reason we can’t move beyond the gas powered engine.” His “dream” is to build a series of “smart highways.”
“What if you had electrically powered vehicles that could actually pick up power out of the roadway?” Clark asked. “And they were light weight, not heavy? And with modern technology, what if they were remotely controlled? You could flip a switch and have it automatically drive down the center of the highway, maintain proper speed, not bump into the car ahead of it, know where the other cars were in front of it.”
Yes, Spock, but what will we do in this eon?
I kid, but the General actually got applause for this, as if it were a serious solution and not a detail of a Phillip K. Dick story. But as funny as his crackpot ideas may be, it’s looking like the General is about to force us all to pay a bit more heed.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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