Clark’s True Colors

Clark’s True Colors

The general and his troops go after the Big Win.


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.

The imagery of the stalwart warrior reluctantly accepting the laurels offered by the Draft Clark movement is very consciously encouraged by the Clark campaign, and especially by Clark himself, who makes no secret of being a student of this kind of history. At a press conference in Concord in early November, Clark joked that “there hasn’t been a successful draft movement since Cincinnatus.”

Clark brings up Cincinnatus a lot. He was the good Roman dictator who, as a very old man, defeated the Aequi barbarians and saved the empire. Lots of obvious parallels there–if you happen to think Thomas Jefferson’s United States is a place where the people ought to be longing for a benevolent dictator. That said, the Cincinnatus imagery seems to me to be a decoy. The throne Clark is really after is Caesar’s. Once you’ve watched Clark sheepishly ascend to the podium after an introduction by a Draft Clark veteran, and shake his head and say, “They really made it impossible for me to say no”–once you’ve seen that act five or six times, you’re not left with any doubt about where it comes from.

Snapshot from the Clark campaign. Nashua, New Hampshire, October 21. Clark had been scheduled that day to give a “major economic address,” but that was scratched, so to speak, due to an illness that left him without his voice. To fill the time slot, the Clark staffers scheduled one of the classic seen-but-not-heard events so many of the candidates favor: the “downtown walk.” The general was going to stroll up and down the main drag in Nashua, allowing the press to take dramatic pictures of him surveying the impulse-buy counters of local stores.

It was pouring rain when Clark arrived. After a brief handshaking scrum outside Nashua’s city hall, he took off down the rainy street in search of photo ops. Three dozen journalists raced after him, in Keystone Kops fashion.

At this kind of campaign event I follow the old adage: Don’t run down the hill and screw one of the cows, walk down and screw them all. When a candidate does a photo op in a store or restaurant, I go, have a leisurely lunch and then come back later and ask the proprietor to re-create the whole event as though it were a crime scene. At a diner in Claremont I even got a waitress to draw chalk outlines of Joe Lieberman’s feet. In this relaxed atmosphere, your interview subject always recalls the story with more feeling.

At a Nashua bakery called Patisserie Bleu later that day, owner Jacqui Pressinger went through the motions of Clark’s appearance, walking from the door to the counter. “He came in, stood right here, and ordered an ‘Everything’ bar,” she said. “But then–he was whispering–he leaned over and told me and the girls that actually, his favorite dessert was a napoleon.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“Yup,” she said. “Then he started talking about West Point. He said something about eating a lot of napoleons at West Point.”

“That’s incredible,” I said.

“Mmm-hm,” she said. “I love pastry stories!”

At one of the Clark meet-ups in Boston, at a bar near Faneuil Hall, we volunteers were addressed by a man who was introduced as the highest-ranking Massachusetts politician to have endorsed the Clark campaign–a member of the state Democratic committee named Steve Driscoll. Here is how Driscoll opened his remarks:

“The thing is,” he said, “being electable means having certain qualities. And unfortunately, many of those qualities are superficial qualities.” He paused. “General Clark has depth, but he also has those surface qualities. He appeals to people who don’t have time to think about the depth part.”

Jesus, I thought. They’re just coming right out and saying it.

For the two weeks or so that I had been a volunteer, I had tried, unsuccessfully, to get a rise out of my fellow Clark supporters. Just to see how they would react, I had introduced myself at the first meet-up as an adult-film director named Rondell Abrams. Massachusetts campaign staff member Dave Rubin, a skittish young Brandeis grad, gritted his teeth when I told him I’d just finished making Asian Ass Vixens 6.

“I also did the East St. Louis Street Hookers series,” I said.

He nodded. “Well, uh, we’re glad to have you.”

For this second meet-up, I’d upped the ante, showing up with a friend: She and I were both wearing cervical collars and walking with the stiff posture of personal-injury plaintiffs. I explained to Rubin that I’d been kicked by a donkey, while “Anne” had been thrown off by one. “Wow, that’s tough,” he said. “But thanks for coming, in that condition.”

Dave Yoken, Rubin’s former classmate at Brandeis and another Draft Clark veteran, took it more in stride. “Hey, at least it wasn’t an elephant,” he cracked.

Yoken is quite a character. Brash, loud and energetic, he looks like he came from the same gene pool as Matt Damon, only with some nutrition supplements and a few motivational seminars thrown in. When I asked him how the campaign was going, he gave me a great answer.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said. “We’ve got the 23-28 white male vote sewn up. I mean, we have that absolutely whipped.” He cast a hand around the room: a sea of fleshy males. “But we’ve got to branch out.”

I suggested, sarcastically, that he play up the general’s sex appeal. Yoken jumped on the theme, telling me a story about meeting Clark in Knoxville early in the Draft Clark period. “He showed me a picture of himself in a T-shirt,” he said. “He’s really a ripped guy; his arms were showing. He called that his ‘drool shirt.’ So I think there’s something there.”

He laughed and almost slapped my back for emphasis, but remembered my neck injury and held up just in time.

Shortly afterward, Rubin came over again. Thirty-five minutes later, he’d thought of something to say. “Hey, at least it wasn’t an elephant,” he cracked.

The meeting wore on. It was an amazing experience. Here, ostensibly, were two porn-industry professionals, dressed in identically preposterous cervical collars, attending an organizational meeting for a straitlaced four-star general–and no one so much as blinked.

This is not so surprising, however, because paying close attention is not really what the Clark campaign is about. In fact, it’s very much about the opposite: squinting your eyes, blurring out the margins and focusing on the one main goal on the horizon–beating George Bush. In my time around the campaign I got the sense that this “blurring out” is central to the thinking of the Clark supporter–a desire to dispense with the moral nitpicking of the post-1960s era and get behind the man for the Big Win.

A wide spectrum of people has endorsed this idea, with everyone from Southern moderates like former South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges to Michael Moore talking Clark up as a rational human being and responsible world citizen who may have a few warts, but who would be a vast improvement over Bush. The Wesley Clark advertised in these circles is intelligent, educated, respectful of human life and civil liberties, and occasionally a powerful critic of Bush Administration politics. He is the man who sounded like something out of a Frank Capra movie when he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, “I realized that what we had was an Administration which was determined to take us to war in Iraq, almost no matter what. That’s misleading, it’s wrong, it shouldn’t be permitted, and that Administration has to be held accountable.”

Clark’s star has dimmed a little lately, of course; he has bowed out of the Iowa race, and the fact that he considered pulling out of an upcoming New Hampshire debate suggests he may be placing most of his chips on the South. But for some, the Big Win strategy still makes sense: Forget about the details, focus on the big picture–a prochoice, pro-gun control, anti-Patriot Act Democrat running against the werewolf currently occupying the White House.

The Clark people were nice and well-meaning enough, I suppose. But it was hard not to notice that the fastest way to bum them out was to ask a question about the candidate’s platform. At one point, when Yoken was talking to the “media committee” (I had joined a group whose job involved writing letters to the editor of various newspapers) about Clark’s “New American Patriotism,” I interrupted him.

“What does that mean, exactly, ‘New American Patriotism’?” I said. “Is that as opposed to the old foreign patriotism?”

“No,” Yoken said. “The New American Patriotism sees patriotism as something where dissent and civil liberties are encouraged.”

“I thought that was the old patriotism,” I said.

The committee fell silent for a moment. “Well, whatever,” Yoken said.

The problem with the Big Win strategy is that Wesley Clark is a candidate with whom it is absolutely necessary to pay close attention. No candidate on the campaign trail is better at saying two opposing things at once, and no candidate’s true intentions are harder to discern.

I saw numerous examples of this phenomenon. Up at the labor conference in Whitefield, for instance, the candidates were asked about their position on a labor dispute involving workers and management at the New Hampshire TV station WMUR. WMUR videographer Ryan Murphy asked the candidate if they would support a boycott of a WMUR televised debate if management failed to give workers a contract.

All the candidates except Clark said yes unequivocally. Clark’s initial response to Murphy was classic:

“Let me ask you something,” he said. “Have ya sat down with management?”

Murphy repeated what he’d said in his question: They’d been in negotiations for nine months. Clark squirmed out of that one, saying he’d “look into the matter.”

Now here’s when it got interesting. After the conference, a WMUR reporter went up to Clark and asked him if he would boycott the debates if the other candidates did.

“Oh, you betcha,” he said. “I’m with you a hundred percent on that one.”

I nearly dropped my notebook. “Wait a minute,” I said to the reporter. “Are you asking him if he’d debate himself if everyone else boycotted?”

The reporter shrugged.

I turned to Clark. “General, what if the other candidates don’t boycott? What will you do then?”

“We’re going to take a look at this,” he said, then rushed past us.

Other reporters following Clark have begun to notice this habit lately. Even among this credulous crowd, the double-talk act is beginning to wear thin. At a Clark press conference in Concord a few weeks ago, AP writer Ron Fournier literally threw up his hands when Clark, under repeated questioning, gave a two-faced answer to a question about why he had called the Bush Administration a “great team.” “Well,” Clark said, “like most Americans, I wanted them to succeed.”

(Did they, by the way? I didn’t.)

“Yeah, but why call them a ‘great team’ if you disagreed with them on Iraq?” Fournier asked.

“Because they were making the wrong decisions then,” Clark answered nonsensically.

A murmur shot through the crowd. “What the hell does that mean?” I heard someone say behind me.

Clark elicited a similar response at the same press conference when he made one of the more cryptic–and in retrospect, one of the more meaningful–statements of his campaign. “The legacy of Vietnam,” he said, “will be put to rest by the legacy of Iraq.”

A few reporters asked Clark to explain himself, but the general basically just repeated the statement before leaving the podium. As it turned out, only one journalist wrote it up in the post-mortems. Afterward, I went up to Clark spokesman Bill Buck and found out what he meant.

“What he means,” Buck said, “is that the legacy of Vietnam was that it was a war that we went into without a clear strategy for a successful conclusion.”

“Really?” I said. “Because I thought the legacy of Vietnam was that we senselessly murdered 2 million people in an illegal, criminal colonial invasion.”

Buck rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on,” he said. Then he elaborated. In Vietnam, Buck said, we had no strategy for going in and winning. In Iraq, we have the opportunity to “be successful.”

“And success means winning, not withdrawing?” I said.

“Success means winning,” he said. “He’s made no secret about that.”

I asked Buck if this was not exactly the same position that Richard Nixon ran on, vis-à-vis Vietnam, in 1968–peace with honor. A far from unreasonable question, given that Clark, back in those very days, during his studies at Oxford, had given speeches abroad in support of the Vietnam war effort. Also not unreasonable because Clark voted for Nixon. But Buck shook his head.

“Give me a break,” he said.

A nondenial denial. I laughed. A neo-Ziegler for a neo-Nixon.

The legacy of Vietnam will be put to rest. Maybe Roman history isn’t the only kind of history on the mind of General Clark. Certainly, in his statements about Iraq, he echoes the sentiments of the old Vietnam War boosters. “[The Iraq war] has been a huge strategic mistake for this country,” he says. “But now that we’re in, we have no choice but to succeed.” Between all the anti-Bush bluster, and the talk of the Iraq war being a “national tragedy,” the position of the antiwar candidate really boils down to that: Let’s finish the job like we didn’t last time. Underneath it all, he seems to be a man yearning to scratch a very old itch.

It had always troubled me that people opposed to the war could have seen something in Wesley Clark. Because it seemed to me that no person who found the Iraq war morally repugnant could have gone on television and talked sunnily about how this or that weapon was ravaging Iraqi defenses. I remember watching Clark on CNN, and at one point he was actually playing with a model of an A-10 tank-killer airplane, whooshing it back and forth over a map of Iraq, like a child playing with a new toy on Christmas morning. A person who was genuinely opposed to the war as wrongful killing would be sick even thinking about such a thing.

Clark’s new book, Winning Modern Wars, is 200 pages long, all about the Iraq war. Yet there is only one instance in the entire book in which he gives a physical description of the death of a human being, that being a mention of some Marines in Nasiriyah who were found with bullet holes in their heads. Everywhere else, human beings are described as “targets” or “objectives” or even “high-value targets,” and their deaths are rendered with sports/ football metaphors (“going ‘downtown’ with air power,” “Red Zone” attacks, “the Big Win,” etc.) and bloodless euphemisms for words like “kill” or “assassination” (“destroy,” “decapitating strike”). Moreover, he never mentions civilian casualties without qualifying his statements–the “alleged mistakes of the bombing campaign,” the “hapless women and children reported to be victims of the bombing.”

If this kind of talk sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Clark doesn’t hide it. “I’m a product of that military-industrial complex General Eisenhower warned you about,” he said with a smile a few weeks ago, during a speech at the UNH campus in Manchester. The general assumed–correctly–that the term no longer inspired revulsion in young audiences.

He says it’s something else, but maybe this is what Clark means by the New American Patriotism. New faces, no memories. Fresh recruits to replace the defeatists. A new base for Big Win thinking.

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