At Large

Two Cheers for Wesley Clark

Certainly he is the most interesting of the Democratic candidates.

By 9.23.03

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There is only the slimmest chance that Wesley Clark will win the Democratic presidential nomination, and there is no chance at all, I suspect, that even if he should win the nomination he could be elected president. For one thing, he does not do well on television. He looks like a male model in a Saks Fifth Avenue ad. Nonetheless a Newsweek poll finds that Clark is now the leading Democratic contender; 14 percent of registered Democrats favor his candidacy, while Howard Dean and Joseph Lieberman each come in at 12 percent, and the rest of the field straggles behind.

The Newsweek poll also finds that while no Democrat could defeat George Bush today, Clark comes closer than any of the others. He would get 43 percent of the vote to the president's 47 percent, which isn't at all bad for a novice politician.

Certainly Clark is the most interesting of the Democratic candidates. As a former four-star general he makes both the left and right uncomfortable. The left, as always, has a distaste for military men. The right-wing position, though, is more complicated. Clark upsets the conservative cosmos. He opposed the Iraqi invasion, and so he is -- by Ann Coulter's and other macho polemicists' definition -- a girly-boy.

But Clark has not played fair. He earned a silver star and a purple heart in Vietnam, and he was an aggressive commander in Kosovo, and his prescriptions for a more deployable Army -- more light vehicles, new technology, less Cold War thinking -- match Donald Rumsfeld's. Male model's looks or not, he's just not a girly-boy.

Conservative and neoconservative journalists, however, have been on Clark's case for some time now. The root of their dislike, I think, is that he was more right about Iraq than they were, and they find that unforgivable. Iraq policy has unraveled, but the invasion advocates are unrepentant. Being a neocon means never having to say you're sorry, and Iraq, in its way, is an embarrassment: No weapons of mass destruction have been found, while more American soldiers die, and guerrilla warfare escalates from potshots to RPGs to car bombs and mortars.

So better to go after Clark on other grounds than Iraq, and the criticism of choice now is that he is a Friend of Bill's. The former president may be drifting across the world like a cloud of swamp gas -- California one day, Bosnia the next, and then on to Israel -- but appearances, it seems, are deceptive. Clinton, apparently, is pulling Clark's strings. Under the headline "Clintons Anoint Clark," the oracular William Safire summed up the case in Monday's New York Times.

The Clintons, Safire writes, want to use Clark to get "control of the Democratic Party machinery, threatened by the sudden emergence of Dean and his antiestablishment troops." Then, if the economy tanks, and Bush becomes more vulnerable, "Hillary would have to announce willingness to accept a draft. Otherwise should the maverick Dean take the nomination and win, Clinton dreams of a Restoration would die." And if the Restoration does take place, Safire says, the good soldier Clark would then be rewarded with second place on Mrs. Clinton's ticket.

And for all one knows, Safire may be onto something. Even Times columnists aren't always wrong. At the same time Safire also suggests that reporters may one day "start poking into any defense contracts Clark arranged for clients after his retirement." He offers no evidence, however, that Clark arranged any defense contracts, and the suggestion seems gratuitous.

Safire also writes that the "fickle media" have now "dropped the cranky Vermonter [Dean] like a cold couch potato and are lionizing Clinton's fellow Arkansan and fellow Rhodes Scholar," Clark. I have no idea which fickle media he means, but Clark is hardly getting a free ride.

On the day he announced, for example, CNN reported that the other generals did not like him, and that he was headstrong and impulsive. It also said he had misled Madeleine Albright by telling her that air power alone would chase the Serbs out of Kosovo in no time at all, and that was why she had signed on to the war. (Albright, arguably one of the worst secretaries of state in American history, had to have planted that story herself.)

Meanwhile, as proof of Clark's impulsiveness and loose cannon ways, CNN reported that when Clark wanted to stop the Russians from taking control of the Pristina airport in Kosovo, a British general had to defy him. "Sir," the British general said, "I'm not starting World War III for you."

The quote from the British general also turned up in a big take-out on Clark in last Sunday's Times, and to show how seriously it took the quote the Times said it had already appeared in "several published accounts." The Times wanted to make clear that even if it could not verify the supposedly damning incident with the British general, it certainly was not making it up.

But in fact, Clark himself is the source for the quote. It appears in his book, Waging Modern War. For what, I think, are quite good reasons he did not trust the Russians, and he wanted to park vehicles on the airport runways to prevent their troop carriers from landing. He feared that if the Russians got control of the airport they would use it to divide the NATO forces, and carve out a separate enclave in Kosovo, which they would then share with the Serbs.

Whether Clark was correct in his view I do not know. But he did make a tough judgment call, which generals are supposed to do. Meanwhile it is still unclear whether the Kosovo operation was a success, or whether, which I think more likely, NATO and the U.S. only created an unsustainable rump state that one day will be the catalyst for more Balkan violence.

And as for Clark himself, I suspect, after reading his book, that as generals go, he was also a first-rate prima donna, but then again MacArthur and Patton were, too, and so I don't think we should hold that against him. Meanwhile, judged by his early interviews, he does not seem to be much of a politician, and he will always have his male model looks against him. But clearly he's not a girly-boy.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.