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Waiting for the General

The mystery at the center of the contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is whether a late-entering candidate with no direct experience in domestic politics can win it. The entry of retired General Wesley Clark in mid-September dramatically changed the dynamics of the race: he has been at or near the top of polls of registered Democrats ever since and has a strong and enthusiastic following that began to organize months before he entered the race. Some polls show him defeating President Bush. Clark is trying to do what no other serious candidate for the presidency has done before.

Until Clark’s announcement, the presumed front-runners were Howard Dean and John Kerry. Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and perhaps John Edwards were also considered serious candidates. But none appeared to be a runaway winner. This lack of enthusiasm on the part of voters was one of the reasons why Clark decided to run. The mystery is whether such a belated and, to many, unlikely effort can succeed.

Never before has someone so in-experienced in national politics—at least one whose candidacy has to be taken seriously—entered the presidential campaign so late and under such difficult circumstances. Though, like virtually everyone who runs for president, Clark is immodest, he doesn’t think of himself as comparable to Eisenhower. When Eisenhower decided to run as a Republican in 1952, both parties had been seeking him out, and he was handed the nomination by Republican Party leaders.

Howard Dean can be said to be leading a genuine movement; he has attracted a strong following through his opposition to the war in Iraq and his ability to express the anger that many Democrats feel toward Bush; he has strong organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire. But his irritability often spills over at inopportune times. On ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos he responded testily to a question about his having strongly supported NAFTA and denied that he had ever done so, even though he had signed a letter saying that he had. On the other hand, a speech I saw Dean deliver recently at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee was strong and assured. He was able to arouse the Democrats’ anger, though to a degree that seemed to me almost disturbing.

John Kerry’s is a perplexing campaign. He can be very effective or can seem wooden and perfunctory. I saw him addressing a women’s lunch where he seemed steady and well-informed on a wide range of issues, including health care and the disastrous reconstruction of Iraq. He was also loose and funny. In his speech to the DNC he attacked Howard Dean and the other candidates—most of the others refrained from criticizing their competition—and spent considerable time calling attention to his own accomplishments, often using the first person singular. During his campaign, he has, I think, talked too much of his service in Vietnam and has displayed a certain degree of indecisiveness. He hurt himself badly (not for the only time) by his labored explanation of why he had voted in the Senate for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. (He often takes his motorcycle to campaign stops, as if trying to demonstrate that he is one of the guys.) His campaign has a superabundance of high-powered advisers.

Wesley Clark, for all his fame, is the least known of the major candidates. He is a complex man, intense and often tightly wound. He can also be relaxed and humorous. He is a talented mimic who can mock his own performance in the debates. He is capable of apologizing for the slightest discourtesy without being prompted, a rarity among politicians and part of his considerable charm. He is known to be exceptionally intelligent—he was first in his class at West Point and a Rhodes Scholar—but he is clearly aware that he has a lot to learn in his campaign. He’s shown that he can change his mind. For example, he at first resisted turning back his fees for already booked speeches at three universities after he launched his campaign and after The Washington Post said they might be illegal under the campaign finance law. His campaign lawyer had advised him that the fees were legal, and his inclination was to seek a ruling from the Federal Election Commission. But when he was told that the FEC is dominated by Republicans, and that the administration might unleash the Justice Department to tie up his campaign, as it did John Edwards’s over an allegedly questionable contribution, he reversed himself and put out a statement saying that he would return the funds and cancel all the other paid speaking arrangements that had been booked before the campaign.

Clark can be brash, he can be flip. He is also a highly ambitious man—otherwise he wouldn’t have become a four-star general. Out of a military force of about 1.5 million, and an officer corps of about 230,000, there are, by statutory limit, only thirty-five four-star generals. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, like Clark a veteran of Vietnam, told me, “To become a four-star general you have to get through a very tight screen.”

Clark can also be remarkably, almost unnervingly, candid, saying (off the record, of course) all sorts of things that a politician doesn’t usually talk about outside his close circle of advisers. He is well aware of his own missteps since he announced his candidacy—particularly his apparent inconsistency about how he would have voted on the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq—and he knows that neither the press nor many Democrats will be generous if he makes any further mistakes.

Unlike the other major candidates, Clark had no political team to bring with him into the campaign, and scarcely knew several of the people who agreed to work for him. And though a number of young people have joined Clark’s staff, some of the most influential people around Clark once worked for Bill Clinton. This, and statements praising him by Bill and Hillary Clinton, have led to some erroneous (and mischievous) suggestions that Clark is a tool of the Clintons, who are said to have a devious plan to use Clark’s candidacy to somehow benefit Hillary Clinton’s ambitions. But Clark is an exceptionally independent man and it is, in my view, inconceivable that he would willingly be used in that way by the Clintons. One problem that he might have with Clinton’s former aides is that most of them have gone on to lucrative careers and are not as intensely involved in the current campaign as they were in those of the past. One top adviser, the Washington lawyer Ron Klain, a former adviser to Al Gore, decided not to leave his firm and his wife and young children in Washington to move to Little Rock, Clark’s hometown, where his campaign is based.

Clark is paying a price for his late entry. His campaign headquarters seemed at first chaotic, and his staff slow to give him the advice he needed. During the week of October 6, however, Clark imposed a new structure on his campaign, making it more clear who was in charge of what. The difficulty of his position is that he is trying to organize a campaign and prepare statements of his positions while flying about the country to win support and raise money. He raised a quite respectable $3.5 million in the first three weeks of his campaign, but he is of course still behind the other candidates. At the rate he’s now raising money, however, he should end up with sufficient campaign funds.

Clark spent the early weeks of his campaign traveling throughout the country to establish himself as a plausible national candidate and—critical to the Democratic Party’s chances next November—as a strong candidate in the South. Then he planned to concentrate on New Hampshire and South Carolina, which votes just after New Hampshire. His campaign has announced that he won’t try to contest Iowa’s more than 2,000 precinct caucuses because of his late entry into the race. But it can’t be ruled out that Clark would consider reviewing the situation if strong grassroots pressure emerged. (If his campaign hadn’t let it be known that he wouldn’t contest the caucuses he would have been expected to spend several million dollars and twenty to thirty days in Iowa.)

In early October one of his top campaign workers, Donnie Fowler, who had been the field coordinator for the Gore campaign, resigned, saying publicly that he felt that the older Washington members of the campaign weren’t giving enough emphasis to the spontaneous movement on the Internet that had urged Clark’s candidacy. While there had been some tension over that matter—Clark has since named one of his Internet organizers to a top position—there may well have been other reasons for Fowler’s resignation. Clark had made Eli Segal, a longtime Clinton associate, the CEO of the campaign, with authority over Fowler, which he may have resented. More recently, Clark has hired several talented people from the now-defunct campaign of Bob Graham, including experienced organizers for New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he recently hired a former member of the Kerry campaign, Chris Lehane, to handle communications.

Clark didn’t enter the race until mid-September largely because his wife, Gert, to whom he is extremely close, didn’t want him to run. He held back until she said that the decision was his to make. It had been clear for months that Clark was greatly drawn to running but was also waiting to see if any of the already declared candidates had achieved a strong consensus within the party. Many well-informed people had told him that, because of his personal appeal and his military credentials, he was the Democrat most likely to defeat George W. Bush. Gert Clark, an outspoken woman to whom Clark has been married for thirty-six years, was being protective of her husband; she feared that the Democratic base would not accept a military man. She also had strong memories of the time in 2000 when Clark was fired as Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR) six weeks after he had led the NATO allies to victory in the war over Kosovo.

Clark has been open about the fact that he was hurt when his command was cut short. He offered clues about why he was treated so badly in his first book, Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat, published in 2001, and recollections of highly placed civilians in the Clinton administration confirm what he wrote. Clark displeased the defense secretary, Bill Cohen, and General Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by arguing strenuously that—contrary to Clinton’s decision—the option of using ground troops in Kosovo should remain open. But the problem seems to have gone further back. Some top military leaders objected to the idea of the US military fighting a war for humanitarian reasons. (Clark had also favored military action against the genocide in Rwanda.)

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