Gen. Wesley Clark

The White Knight

Gen. Wesley Clark
Gen. Wesley Clark speaks to the Democratic National Committee, Oct. 3, 2003 (Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP-Getty Images).

Those eyes, oh, those eyes! No, they are not piercing, but intent, quiet, and steady, somehow strong.

Most of the time he is squinting, like Clint Eastwood always did, when he stared out into the sun-drenched desert, drawing his poncho a little tighter around his shoulders. And at the same time there is a kind of scornful smile playing on Wesley Clark’s narrow lips, as if he wants to say to the smart aleck outside: “Just you wait, I’ll show you.”

That’s the kind of man Clark is. He can melt the soccer moms’ hearts out there in America’s green suburbs, and he may be the only one who can strike fear into George W. Bush’s heart next year.

Clark is tall and slim, and he keeps his white hair trimmed in a military crew cut. He radiates authority and calm, and even the strategists of the Democratic Party get weak in the knees when they think about him. For them, he is simply the ideal candidate to remove the Bush-men from power in the next presidential elections.

Clark is the kind of shining knight who can free Princess America from the clutches of the Republican dragon. With his entry into the primaries, the eight men and one woman who for months have been toiling to get the public’s attention suddenly look a bit like the squires who carry the knight’s lances.

But above all, the general is the only Democrat who provides a credible alternative to Bush on the national security issue. Charles Rangel, the long-time Democratic congressman from New York City, sums it up nicely: “President Bush won’t be wearing flight suits during his campaign anymore,” he said, referring to the scene out of Top Gun when the U.S. commander in chief landed on an aircraft carrier in early May to announce the end of the fighting in Iraq. Whereas Bush only plays a soldier, Clark is the real McCoy.

When he was a kid, he wanted to be an astronaut, but he ended up going into the army. The West Point graduate served in Vietnam, earning a Silver Star for bravery and a Purple Heart. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he studied philosophy, political science, and economics. Then went on to a brilliant career in the military.

He became known in Europe for his successful leadership as the NATO commander in chief who steered the alliance through the war in Kosovo. But he did not endear himself to the bureaucracy in the Pentagon because he built direct connections with the Clinton White House and made regular use of them. The anger of the chiefs of staff led to his early retirement in 2000.

But colleagues and subordinates also complained about his “aggressive, uncollegial” style. “Obviously, he creates a new kind of excitement,” said Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “If he succeeds, it will be because he surprises people with his credibility, and his depth and passion on domestic issues.” But Greenberg adds a warning: “It is, however, also possible that he will disappear into oblivion. He could be flat, he could be terrible with the base, and he could not have the common touch.”

Greenberg was probably thinking about another general and former NATO commander who once sought his party’s presidential nomination. Alexander Haig entered the race in 1988 for the Republicans, but his campaign ended early amid an uproar. Haig stood at dawn at a factory gate and spoke to workers before they started their shifts. When one man was hostile to his advances, Haig turned to reporters and barked: “Every once in a while you meet an asshole.”

Clark would never commit such a gaffe. He has always been not just an officer but also a gentleman. We cannot, however, overlook the fact that he has major weaknesses and offers open flanks for attack. He has no political experience and has jumped into the Democratic presidential race relatively late. Beyond the political caste in Washington, he is a virtual unknown, without a staff, and above all, without campaign funds. It is true that supporters have promised US$1.5 million for his race, but that is laughably little compared with the other candidates’ war chests.

“We’ll see whether there’s a constituency in the Democratic Party for Gen. Clark,” said Jim Jordan, a campaign manager for Clark’s rival John Kerry, dismissively. “He’s obviously impressive. But a career military man with no domestic experience would be an exceptionally unusual profile for Democrats to choose.”

For John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts, it is apparent that Clark’s entry into the race could be especially dangerous. The Vietnam veteran has been able, thus far, to make use of his military service as the only one in the race who has been in uniform.

But the Democratic political establishment is not so worried about Clark hurting Kerry, since Kerry’s prospects have been dwindling in any case. The leadership is much more concerned about Howard Dean, the former governor of  Vermont, who has been taking the Democratic masses by storm. Until Clark’s decision to run, he was the uncontested leader in the race.

The problem with Dean is obviously that his views may be too far to the liberal side to attract a majority of American voters. “I know Democrats from all over the country who have been waiting for this 10th candidate,” said one Democratic politician who insisted on anonymity in The New York Times. And Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe told the conservative Wall Street Journal that his doorman implored him to urge Clark to become a candidate.

And the general already has the blessing of the top-ranking Democrat: His former commander and fellow Arkansan, Bill Clinton, recently remarked that his party has just two stars: his wife, Hillary—and Gen. Wesley Clark.