September 22, 2003


The Savior Complex: Can the real Wesley Clark match the fantasy version imagined by peacenik Democrats? (JOE KLEIN, 9/21/03, TIME)

Clark's precipitate tumble from his white horse was entirely predictable, as was the drumbeat from the cognoscenti and much of the media for him to enter the race and save the day. Those of us demented enough to follow electoral politics have been living with the nine Democrats for most of a year now. They've become pretty boring. They gather occasionally to debate one another and succeed only in diminishing themselves. Howard Dean's exciting candidacy was an exception for most of the summer, but he has spent much of September stepping on his epaulets, too. What's a pundit—or a despairing Democratic member of Congress—to do? I have covered eight presidential campaigns, and the answer is always the same: find a deus ex machina. In my time, these have ranged from Jerry Brown (1976) to Ralph Nader to Lee Iacocca to Mario Cuomo to Al Gore (1992, when Clinton seemed to be stumbling) to Ross Perot. Most were wise enough to stay away; those who jumped in failed.

This has been a boom season for would-be Democratic saviors. In addition to Wes Clark, there have been all sorts of inane rustling about Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. Former President Clinton—who really should go home and write his book—has been dropping Hillary hints for several weeks now; the Senator herself insisted on posting Run-Hill-Run e-mail on her website until last Friday. This is self-promotional cotton candy. The junior Senator from New York is, if nothing else, disciplined. She knows she needs to spend time bulking up her resume, especially on national security issues—it's no accident she lobbied for a place on the Senate Armed Services Committee. As for Gore, he is extremely smart, and he gave a terrific speech in August about the Bush Administration's foreign-policy fecklessness—but does anybody remember what a terrible candidate he was in 2000? [...]

Clark's entry should signal the end of the silly season. It is time for the Democrats to get down to business and choose a candidate. In an ideal world, it would be time to clear the stage. The three vanity candidates—Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun—should repair immediately to the lecture circuit. John Edwards and Bob Graham should return to the Senate. That's not going to happen, but elections will be held soon enough, a winner will emerge and, given their antipathy toward George W. Bush, most Democrats will suddenly come to the conclusion that their new champion is Franklin Roosevelt on roller skates. But that's a delusion we'll deal with next spring.

Clark’s Charge: The Race: The general did what he always does—shot to the top of his class. But his skin is thin, and the climb is steep. What Wesley Clark’s arrival does to the Democratic field (Howard Fineman, 9/29/03, NEWSWEEK)
After Al Qaeda attacked America, retired Gen. Wes Clark thought the Bush administration would invite him to join its team. After all, he’d been NATO commander, he knew how to build military coalitions and the investment firm he now worked for had strong Bush ties. But when GOP friends inquired, they were told: forget it.

WORD WAS THAT Karl Rove, the president’s political mastermind, had blocked the idea. Clark was furious. Last January, at a conference in Switzerland, he happened to chat with two prominent Republicans, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Marc Holtzman, now president of the University of Denver. “I would have been a Republican,” Clark told them, “if Karl Rove had returned my phone calls.” Soon thereafter, in fact, Clark quit his day job and began seriously planning to enter the presidential race--as a Democrat. Messaging NEWSWEEK by BlackBerry, Clark late last week insisted the remark was a “humorous tweak.” The two others said it was anything but. “He went into detail about his grievances,” Holtzman said. “Clark wasn’t joking. We were really shocked.”

They shouldn’t have been: when Clark wades into the battle, he expects to be taken seriously. Howard Dean knew to be careful when he and Clark held what was supposed to be a secret conference three weeks ago in L.A. Dean’s advisers had warned their boss not to even hint that Clark would be the running mate should Dean win the Democratic nomination. “That would have been both presumptuous and condescending,” said a Dean aide. Somehow, word of the meeting leaked—as did the notion (hotly denied by Dean insiders) that the VP slot indeed had been offered.

Once again Clark was furious; once again his response was to gear up. The day of the leak, Clark for the first time met his new senior PR adviser, Mark Fabiani. The general asked him to suggest a possible chief of staff. Fabiani nominated Ron Klain, who had filled that role for Al Gore. “What’s his number?” Clark asked—and called immediately. Klain said yes. Nine days later, Clark entered the race.

A Four-Star Candidate?: Wesley Clark announces for president. (Matthew Continetti, 09/29/2003, Weekly Standard)
As for Clark's real liabilities, there are three. First, he is prone to conspiracy theories. In June, he told Tim Russert that he had received a phone call on September 11, 2002, from "people around the White House" urging him to publicly link Saddam Hussein to the attacks. Only after his accusation was picked up by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman did Clark go on the record and say that no one had called him from the White House. He now says he received a call from a "man from a Middle East think tank in Canada, the man who's the brother of a very close friend of mine in Belgium." While it turns out that someone who more or less fits that bill did call Clark and discussed possible connections between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, the call took place after September 11, wasn't in any way sinister, and in any case certainly didn't come from the White House.

More recently, Clark said the White House tried to have him fired from CNN during the Iraq war. He told an anchor on Phoenix Newsradio 620 KTAR, "The White House actually back in February apparently tried to get me knocked off CNN and they wanted to do this because they were afraid that I would raise issues with their conduct of the war." Once again, Clark has no proof. He concedes, "I've only heard rumors about it."

Another potential weakness is that Clark's background--Rhodes scholar, four star general, military theorist--is so attractive to educated liberals that they're tempted to oversell his chances of winning the presidency. Just look at "Future Star," an article in the September 15 Fortune magazine. The text is overshadowed by two full pages of photos of Clark's face. There's the general smiling. There's the general laughing. There's the general confused. There's the general with a "come hither" look. "The Clark candidacy is a crazily overblown thing," says former Clinton strategist Dick Morris, "probably coming from Western Europe via elite media circles. Clark will do very well with Democrats living in Paris. But he has no base in the United States."

Finally, there's Iraq. Last week, Clark muddied his stand when he told a group of reporters that he "probably" would have voted to authorize the Iraq war if he had been a member of Congress in the fall of 2002--though he "was against the war as it emerged because there was no reason to start it when we did. We could have waited." A day later he said he "would never have voted for this war." (It's impossible not to be reminded of the classic Clintonism on the use-of-force resolution preceding the first Gulf war, in January 1991: Said presidential candidate Bill Clinton, "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made.")

That presents a target rich environment, but two favorites are: General Clark, who even the Clintonistas knew had to be fired, thought the Bush team would bring him back for the War on Terror; and, that Joe Klein thinks the entry of such a vainglorious neophyte marks the end of the silly season in Democratic presidential jockeying.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 22, 2003 8:20 PM

It's the end of the silly season only if you assume the other candidates are either going to lay down and die or become total nonentities in the media. Since that would have to include Howard Dean and his grassroots liberal warriors -- the ones least likely to want eight more years of what they consider warmed-over Clintonistic Republicanism as the official policy of the Democratic Party -- it isn't going to happen.

Posted by: John at September 22, 2003 9:14 PM