Clark's True Colors
You can see something in the eyes of most all the Democratic candidates: the pugnacity of Howard Dean, the idealism of Dennis Kucinich, even (surprisingly) the elaborate sense of humor just under the surface of Joe Lieberman.
Not Wesley Clark. His eyes are blank. Like a turtle resting on a rock in the middle of a pond, he simply seems never to move, no matter how long you stare. But then, just as you're about to pack up your picnic basket and go home, you catch him: His head pops out, and he slides off into the water...
Whitefield, New Hampshire, October 25. Four of the candidates--Kerry, Dean, Kucinich and Clark--are addressing New Hampshire and national union leaders at the annual state AFL-CIO conference. The setting is a beautiful, Shining-esque luxury hotel called the Mountain View Grand Resort and Spa, perched on a hill at the northern edge of the White Mountain range. In bad weather it would take police hours to reach the crime scene. "All that's missing is the hedge maze," cracked Gail Kinney, representing the National Writers Union.
Each candidate had a half-hour to speak and answer labor-related panel questions. Kerry went first and did so-so. Dean went later and did better. Kucinich was the star, leaving to uproarious applause; he sounded like the second coming of Sam Gompers. Last in line came the unknown, Wesley Clark. And what a very strange performance it was.
In a room full of people in satin jackets embroidered with union acronyms, Clark entered flanked by a pair of boosters dressed in shiny red VFW jackets. Seeming harried, he gave a short address that was laden with military metaphors: "I'm going to go on the warpath to stop that," "We have to attack on the employment front" and so on. As his speech went on, it became painfully clear that Clark had the idea of workers confused with soldiers. "As I stand here today, I tell you that in the Army, we knew that the unit was never any better than its parts," he said. "The generals weren't any better than the soldiers. When you're in uniform, you're part of a team..."
Heads turned in shock all throughout the audience. What the hell was he talking about? But Clark plowed on. He began to recount his biography, noting that the Army had allowed him to "be all he could be." Five minutes later, he said it again. "Every part of this society," he said, "has to get the support that they need to be all they can be."
After the conference, I chased after him in the parking lot. "General," I said. "You're not seriously going to make 'Be all you can be' your campaign slogan, are you?"
He smiled, then gave me a little nudge with his elbow, apparently thinking I was with him on this one. "Son," he said, "it is my campaign slogan."
Afterward, Arnie Alpert of UNITE laughed about Clark's performance. "Next thing you know, it'll be the Campaign of One," he said.
I went the extra mile to cover Clark, even parting with a significant amount of my valuable time on this earth to volunteer, under an assumed name, for his campaign. Desperate measures were required, because solving the Clark puzzle is a desperate problem. It is not easy to explain how a man who voted for Reagan and Nixon, was a speechwriter for Al Haig, worked in the Ford White House alongside Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and was a passionate supporter of the Vietnam War could become a darling of the liberal antiwar crowd. Thirty-five years ago, hundreds of thousands of people took angrily to the streets, universities were taken over and a sitting President was hounded from the White House because of people like Wesley Clark.
Now Clark is presenting himself as a White Knight to the modern version of that same demographic, and he is being welcomed with open arms. He appeals to roughly the same class of people as Howard Dean, with a subtle difference. The Dean crowd self-consciously sees itself as a political force. When Dean tells supporters, "You have the power!" they holler like banshees, creating a Mike-Dukakis-teach-in-meets-Who-Let-the-Dogs-Out? kind of effect. But the chief crowd ritual in the Clark campaign is that of a group of hushed, groveling supplicants staring dewy-eyed at their savior Caesar. The vibe is all about ceding power, not empowerment.