Skip to comments.FORTUNE: Wesley Clark has emerged as a player in national politics. But is he ready for prime time?
Posted on 09/21/2003 1:13:41 PM PDT by Pikamax
WESLEY CLARK Future Star Mulling a run for President, Wesley Clark has emerged as a player in national politics. But is he ready for prime time? FORTUNE Tuesday, September 2, 2003 By Bill Powell
It was back around the time George W. Bush kept an aircraft carrier loitering in the Pacific so that he could make a top-gun landing and effectively declare the Iraq war over. Nothingor so it seemedcould save shell-shocked Democrats. Half a year earlier the party had been routed in congressional elections, despite a lousy economy and history's dictum that the out party is supposed to gain House seats in off-year elections. When Bush then "won" the war in Iraq in 26 days, you could divide Democrats into two camps: those contemplating suicide and those wondering how they would get through the next six years until Hillary presided over the Clinton Restoration. In the depressed Democratic mind, there was no hope. The possibility that a candidate straight out of central castingsay, an intelligent, handsome war heromight save them never entered their consciousness. A guy like Wesley K. Clark wasn't even an afterthought. Wes Clark? General Wes Clark? Aren't generalswell, aren't they Republicans?
The 2004 election campaign, which hadn't even begun, was over. If you doubted it, all you had to do was look at the Democratic field. The most "presidential" was, God help us, a liberal from Massachusetts (that would be Senator John Kerry). The best known, former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, was a soporific campaigner who backed Bush on Iraq. (What was the point of voting for him?) The most venomous of them, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, was from a tiny, rural state. On occasion he seemed almost to have a faint soft spot for one of the most murderous thugs of the late 20th century. ("It's a good thing we got rid of Saddam," he said once, "I guess....") Throw in the trial lawyers' candidate, Senator John Edwards (who looked as if he were about 16), the historically incompetent ex-mayor of Cleveland, and you get the picture. "It was enough," says one primo Democratic fundraiser in Washington, "to give you a hangover without even going near the liquor cabinet."
A Timeline Years
1944-66 The Early Years Clark's life as a child, he says now, traversed an arc that went from one Cold War crisis to the nextthe Korean war to the brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution to the Cuban missile crisis. 1989-97 The Ascension After the war in Southeast Asia, Clark, a recipient of the Purple Heart and Silver Star, recovered from his wounds and stuck with the demoralized post-Vietnam military. As chief of the Army's Southern Command, Clark joined Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares at the ceremony to turn over a former U.S. military base to the Panamanian government in 1996. 1997-2000 NATO and the Balkans As the NATO commander in Europe, Clark conducted the Kosovo conflict in 1999. He now holds out that military intervention as a template for how war should be conducted. But a question for Clark beckons: Why was Kosovo a good idea but Iraq not? 2001-03 Civilian Life After leaving the military Clark joined an Arkansas investment firm and went on to serve on three corporate boards. President Clinton, who cut short the general's NATO command after the Kosovo conflict, presented Clark with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2000.
Things, you may have noticed, change. The war in Iraqsurprise, surprisewasn't really over. It had just taken a different form, and our guys, as any number of experts had publicly warned, were becoming daily casualties in something that occupied the deadly space between a guerrilla war and a terrorist campaign. The weapons of mass destruction that the administration used to justify the war do not appear to be in Iraq. Accusations flew that the President had deliberately hyped the threat from Saddam. Supposed Iraqi efforts to buy uranium to build a nuke turned out to be a farce.
What had been Bush's strength, his confident leadership in a multifront war on terror, suddenly looked shaky. The doubts that Dean, the former Vermont governor, expressed before the war seemed all too prescient, and his scathing attacks on the President were just what an angry Democratic base wanted to hear. The President's poll numbers started to drop, and by mid-August his job-approval rating was hovering just above 50%as low, in other words, as it's ever been. Sometime in the summer of 2003, the despair that had morphed into anger became something else entirely among some Democrats: hope. The fleeting thought that, oh, my, we might actually be able to win.
And all along, just offstage, watching with keen interestbut oh, no, he would insist, just watchingwas Wesley Clark, the putative Man on the White Horse. If, amid the sullen Democratic gloom of a few months ago, few gave a damn about him, that had suddenly changed. Now, among the activists, the fundraisers, the political press, and the politically curious, there is an undeniable buzz. Just what is Clarkthe former NATO commander, Vietnam veteran, and Purple Heart recipientgoing to do? Is he going to run? Or not? And if he is, the curious whisper, is he actually ready for prime time?
By the time you read this, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe may in fact have become the tenth Democratic candidate running for George Bush's job. Alas, we can't say for sure, because Clark and the people around him insist that he won't make a final decision until after Labor Day. And, as befits a military man, "operational security" on this subject has been pretty good. Suffice it to say that whether he runs or not, Wes Clark has already done what is necessary, through countless TV appearances, speaking engagements, and schmoozing with the Democratic political elite, to establish himself as a playerpossibly a serious one, in national politics. He's smart, articulate, handsomeand has some serious bones to pick with Bush administration policy. Audiences, small or large, who come to hear him speak invariably come away impressed. In Aspen, Colo., recently, at a conference co-sponsored by FORTUNE full of high-powered types from business and politics, Clark was crisp, erudite, and occasionally humorous as he critiqued Bush's foreign policy. During a panel discussion that included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Paula Dobriansky, a current undersecretary of state, Clark was the one whom people leaned forward in their chairs to hear. "What do you think," an intrigued Larry Summers, the former Clinton Treasury Secretary, later asked a political reporter in attendance, "about Wes Clark?"
No wonder, then, that in late August rumors flew that Dean, now the Democratic front-runner by dint of his lead in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, was going to announce that he and Clark had already done a deal: that if Dean won the nomination, Clark would be his VP. Meanwhile, a fundraiser working for John Kerry, the Senator from Massachusetts, said flatly, "Clark is running this time around for Vice President, and Kerry should think very seriously about picking him."
For a guy who isn't a politician, who as a general successfully prosecuted the conflict in Kosovo only to be unceremoniously dumped by the Clinton administration, partly because his profile had gotten too high ("Get your f face off TV," Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered him at one point), who hasn't even said whether he is, in fact, a Democrat, let alone whether he is going to run as one this time around, or everwell, that kind of talk isn't half bad.
Fifty-eight years ago Clark was born Wesley Kanne in Chicago. His father, Benjamin, a lawyer active in Chicago politics, died when Wesley was just 4 years old. His mother went back to Little Rock and moved in with her parents, and she eventually remarried a banker named Victor Clark. Wesley Kanne, son of a Jewish father, became Wesley Clark, and was raised a Baptist (later, after meeting his wife, Gert, he converted to Catholicism).
Born in 1944, Clark might as well have had "child of the Cold War" stamped on his birth certificate. He says he was the "poorest kid in the richest neighborhood" in Little Rock. His schoolmates were the children of bank presidents and auto-dealership owners. "It was a good life," he says, but he decided early on that there was a big world beyond Little Rock and he was interested in it. His life as a kid, he says now, traversed an arc that went from one Cold War crisis to the nextthe Korean war, the brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution ("I remember reading stories about the Hungarians and thinking how brave they were"), the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis. "It was a scary time," Clark says for the benefit of those who might have missed it. When it came time to select a college, he went to West Point, because, he says, "I wanted to do something that would help protect the country. That's what interested me."
After West Point, Clark had a Rhodes scholarship, then caught the Cold War firsthand. Two years after the Tet offensive in Vietnam, in 1970, Clark was the 26-year-old commander of a mechanized infantry unit that came under fire. It was a small skirmishan "insignificant firefight," Clark now saysand it was over quicklybut not before he was wounded in four places. It took a year of rehab back in the U.S. "to recover fully."
That history, of course, matters now, in a way that in the post-Cold War, pre-Sept. 11 interregnum it did not. Among the major Democratic candidates, only Kerry was in Vietnam, serving honorably and then dissenting as a Veteran Against the War. Dean, who grew up on New York City's Park Avenue, got a medical deferment. President Bush served in the Texas National Guard. Clark took his Purple Heart, did his rehab, and stuck with the traumatized, post-Vietnam military. Even those who don't particularly like Wes Clarkand in an organization as vast and competitive as the U.S. Army, that's a fair numberconcede his intelligence and political guile. After a series of increasingly high-profile posts, culminating as chief of the Southern Command, General John Shalikashvili, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed Clark to the NATO job in 1997.
His resume gives Clark what the other Democrats (save, arguably, Kerry) don't have: the military gravitas to go head-to-heador epaulet-to-epauletwith the Bush administration's hawks and not be sneered at. On paper, in a general election, in an era when voters know that it's not just the economy, stupid, that should be a critical attribute. Clark's supporters say that if Democrats can get beyond their current politics-as-hissy-fit momentmanifested by Dean's rising poll numbersthey'd realize that their man could be Bush's worst nightmare. They point to a "blind" poll that John Zogby conducted for the Draft Clark movement in late August that pitted Bush against a nameless candidate with all of Clark's qualifications. The result: nameless candidate 49%, Bush 40%. Chris Kofinis, part of the Draft Clark movement, says, "People are going to realize that no matter what, the President who's elected in 2004 will be a wartime President. You've got to be able to critique how we got where we are, but then lay out where we go from here. This guy can do that."
Clark, for all his coyness about what party he belongs to, is anything but shy in his contempt for Bush's policies. He believes NATO should have been invited in, not out, of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the first in a series of unilateral steps that now has the U.S. at daggers drawn with formerly close allies. And he believes, as many Bush critics do, that that war could have been conducted in a smarter way, so as not to let Osama bin Laden and thousands of his fighters escape into Pakistan to fight another day.
But it is Iraq that drives him to distraction. Clark flatly believes, like many Democrats, that the war was sold under false pretenses. And the soldier in him is furious that the administration put America's military in harm's way without a goodthat is to say, realreason. "This was not a preemptive war," he told FORTUNE in one of two lengthy recent interviews. "For me, the critical line of analysis is, Was the threat so imminent that we needed to attack? Was he about to hit us? With what? A missile? He doesn't have a missile that could hit us. An airplane? What, a Piper Cub across the Atlantic? He was going to give [weapons of mass destruction] to al Qaeda? C'mon! We know Saddam Hussein. He wouldn't give stuff to al Qaeda unless he had their mother, their children, and their ten wives in custody so that he could pull their teeth out if he didn't like what they were doing. He's not going to do that."
This, in truth, is not dissimilar from what virtually all the Democrats now say. But he, like Dean, didn't vote in favor of the war. And unlike anyone elseDean, in particularhe has those general's stars to back up the talk.
For Clark's supporters, that's pretty much the case for him. It's true that since leaving the military in 2000 he has thrown himself energetically into business, working first for Stephens Inc., the Little Rock investment firm, and also becoming chairman of Wavecrest Laboratories, a company with a promising technology for an electric motor that Clark talks about at enthusiastic length. He has clearly not treated either of those positions as sinecures. He passed his Series 62 exam (qualifying him to sell stocks and other securities) at Stephens, and his interest in what both companies do is clearly not feigned. Clark has made some money since he left the military and has enjoyed doing so. As nice as life was as NATO chief, with an elegant chateau in Belgium as his residence, the military does not, he jokes, "have a Jack Welch retirement plan: They don't let you take it with you."
Clark, then, would not be an "antibusiness" Democrat should he run. His economics are garden-variety, centrist, conventional. He doesn't like budget deficits, says the recovery underway is "jobless," and of course is critical of the Bush tax cuts. Like most of the other declared candidates, he is maddeningly vague about which parts of them he'd roll back, and when. Asked about health care, Clark goes into a disquisition about the backwardness of the incentives when it comes to health insurance. The other candidates would have their press people fax you their 14-point plan, along with seven studies on why it's the best thing for America since the lava lamp. Clark, on domestic policy anyway, is trying out lines as he goes along, seeing what works, what doesn't.
It doesn't really matter. If Clark goes, he's not going because he's all worked up about those damned deficits. He would run as general, the former NATO commander coming to restore order and reason to an American foreign policy run amuck, one that has made, he argues, the country less secure, not more, since George W. Bush took over. Iraq would be exhibit A.
And there, possibly, lies a problem. As we've seen, in politics things change. Iraq, one year from now, is not likely to be the unmitigated disaster that currently seems possible, nor the stable democracy of neoconservative dreams. It will probably be either slightly more or slightly less of a mess than it is now. For Clark, no less than for the other Democrats, the issue then gets complicated.
The central foreign policy debate of the 2004 campaign, coming in the wake of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraqand with nuclear crises unfolding in North Korea and Iranwill be straightforward: When should the U.S. use military force by itself, when with allies, and when not at all? Obviously Iraq didn't meet Clark's "imminence" test. He does not believe Saddam was a threat to anyonenot even, it seems, to his own people.
Clark will be challenged on that, in part because of his own military experience. Some background is in order here. Clark famously conducted the Kosovo conflict in 1999, a military intervention that he essentially holds up now as a template for how war should be conducted, boasting in the FORTUNE interview that "we didn't lose one soldier in that conflict." But some of critics in the Pentagon, then and now, politely point out that it was Clark who, when it looked as if the air campaign against Serbian troops was flagging, urged that Apache attack helicopters and ground troops be inserted into Kosovo (indeed, that was part of the reason he was cashiered before his tour at NATO was supposed to be up). Had he gotten what he wanted, it's likely that he wouldn't be boasting now about a casualty-free conflict.
The bigger question for Clark beckons. Why was Kosovo a good idea, but Iraq not? Clark views Kosovo as a justifiable war in part because it stopped Serbian ethnic cleansing in its tracks as it was happening. For that reason, it was a worthy humanitarian intervention. He argues further that the West, led by Clinton, should have intervened to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the Hutus slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis.
Few would disagree with that now. But for Clark it naturally raises an obvious issue: What, for example, of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's flat assertion that, WMD or not, history will regard the Iraq invasion as the right thing to do for basically humanitarian reasonsone of the world's greatest thugs and his entire regime is now history, just as Serbia's Milosevic is?
Clark doesn't handle that question as deftly as you'd expect. Not even close, actually. "The imminence of stopping a guy from committing a crime in progressit wasn't there," he says of Saddam. "In Kosovo you had ethnic cleansing actually unfolding, and we had intervened to stop it. But history will judge us on many things, there are many evil regimes in the world, there are many people that do things that are wrong....Some terrible things have happened in Burma, for example," he says, leaving the pointwe're not talking about regime change in Burma, right?unsaid.
For the most part, this is standard realpolitik criticism of the Iraq war, except that Kosovo has apparently given rise to what might be labeled the Wes Clark Statute of Limitations for Genocidal Thugs. "It was ten years ago," he explains, "that Saddam brutalized the Shiite Muslims in the south, and he used chemical weapons 15 years ago"the idea evidently being that Saddam gets a pass. But Clark isn't finished. In trying to hammer home the point that the world is full of nasty regimes that we don't, for stability's sake, go around punching out, he says: "We still deal with communist China, right? During the Cultural Revolution," he says sarcastically, "they had cannibalism in China." Okay, you're thinking, he's stretching to make the point. He's mocking the Bushies. Fine. But there's more. "And the same guys that ran over the students in Tiananmen, they're still there."
At some point during this answer, the image of gravitas that a general and NATO commander has begins, shall we say, to fray a bit. It's fine to argue that the Iraq invasion was wrong. Clark may be right about that, and whoever's elected next year will have to pick up the pieces. We'll see. But a lot of people well to the left of George W. Bushled by Tony Blairwould argue that the statute of limitations stuff is dubious. And suffice it to say that the "guys" running China now are not the same leaders who killed the students in Tiananmen Square. The recently departed General Secretary Jiang Zemin, to take but one example, was promoted from mayor of Shanghai to succeed Deng Xiaoping in part because he avoided bloodshed during Tiananmen. Yes, China's still more or less a police state. But have you ever heard of Saddam promoting someone because he avoided killing somebody?
The discussion about General Wesley Clark jumping into the race now focuses mostly on things like moneyis there enough still out there to fund a competitive campaign? Clark doesn't seem worried about it, and his supporters tend to speak of him as the political Field of Dreams candidate: Once he's in, the Benjamins will come. A lot of Democratic fundraisers and officeholders say that's deeply naive. "It's too late," says one Democratic Congressman supporting Kerry. "This is not like Hillary jumping into the race, causing people to jump ship. Most of the money out there is committed." Without a lot of money, Clark could struggle to make a dent in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, where the critical political ground troopsthe doorbell ringers and envelope stuffersare spoken for. And if he doesn't make a dent early, he may not make one at all. Nor, to some party pros, is all the talk about Clark as VP necessarily persuasive. Hard electoral calculus makes Senator Bob Graham of Florida, another presidential candidate, pretty attractive. Democrats could run Bozo the Clown and win New York and California. Throw in Florida, and, as Al Gore might tell you, they're in business.
The more important question may be whether Clark is actually ready for prime time. By this time professional politicians running seriously for the presidency have honed their messages. They know what to say and, just as important, what not to say. Further, they do all the other things that pols are good at: They schmooze, they are especially nice to rich people with money to give, they pretend to be endlessly fascinated by what ordinary voters say, even if they've heard it 1,000 times that day.
Can Wes Clark do this stuff? He's always crisp and always gracious. He no doubt has stamina to burn. He certainly has things he wants to say. If he can figure out the bit about what not to say, he may be more formidable than the other campaigns now think. Indeed, he could be quite formidable. And if he can't, it won't be too late for the general to get in the race, but too earlyabout four years too early.
Only the good ones.........
Apparently one of the four places was his brain.
The crackers are about to run out!
That statement is incorrect. The truth is that the ship was ahead of schedule, but had yet to launch off the fighters for their home bases. The ship can't pull into port to off load it's Air Wing personnel who maintain those aircraft until all the fighters based in Lemoore and Oceana depart the ship. It would be more accurate to say that the planned fly-in celebrations at NAS Lemoore delayed the Lincoln from pulling in. This another B.S. statement by the Democrats that has become fact for the press.
I watched as my die-hard Deanite sister high-fived my Bush-hating brother (he never bothered to be FOR any of'em in particular) about Wesley Clark getting in the race. That quick, she celebrates Wesley. I sent her an email explaining that Wesley is a bad thing for Dean. Not good. But they're both happy because Wesley is a four-star who can counteract Bush wearing a flight-suit. Not kidding. Pathetic.
If a naval ship is going to get into port early, it's course, speed etc. is adjusted so that it will get in at it's expected time. That way crew families don't get there hours after the arrival - duh!
Off to a start like that - what else did the writer get wrong, take out of context and gloss over?