The Magazine

Only Ready for Primetime

The lights grow dim for Wesley Clark's shadow candidacy.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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LAST WEEK, Democratic party consultant Jenny Backus told the New York Times that Democratic congressmen and presidential candidates "don't need to do any criticism of the Bush administration right now" because the "generals are doing that job for us."

Of all the retired rent-a-generals currently holding forth on cable TV, though, surely Wesley Clark is in the trickiest spot, because he just might become a candidate himself. The former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO during the Kosovo war has a small but growing number of Democrats giddy with hopes that he'll run for their party's presidential nomination next year. There's just one problem: His current job as a CNN military analyst means that for his own sake and the network's, he has to maintain the polite fiction that he's not a politician.

No one else is buying it. Speculation that Clark might be a candidate began last fall, when he met with well-heeled Democrats in New York City to discuss a possible run. Though Clark has not yet registered with a party, he campaigned for a number of Democrats in last fall's midterm elections; spoke to the Democratic Leadership Council; met party activists and gave speeches in New Hampshire; made a $1,000 contribution to Erskine Bowles's North Carolina Senate campaign; and met with DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe in January. Clark has also been the subject of friendly profiles in the Washington Post (twice in the last month) and in the March issue of the liberal American Prospect.

It's easy to see why Democrats might be excited. As he demonstrated during an impressive "Meet the Press" appearance in February, the 58-year-old Clark is articulate and good-looking. Like a recent president, he's a baby boomer Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas. But unlike Bill Clinton, Clark finished first in his class at West Point and won a Purple Heart in Vietnam. In a political environment where the biggest test of a candidate's viability may be whether voters can take him seriously as a potential commander in chief, a retired four-star army general would seem to address the Democratic party's biggest liability: lack of credibility on national security and foreign policy issues.

At a breakfast with reporters last month, Gerald McEntee, the chairman of the AFL-CIO's political arm, offered this unprompted comment: "If Wesley Clark gets in--with the gravitas he has as allied commander of NATO, four stars, with the war mode we're in--it gives him a card to play."

That's a big "if." Thus far Clark has followed the example of Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell, playing the reluctant warrior who might be cajoled into running for president if enough people beg him to. He's issued the standard non-denial denials--"I'm not a candidate yet," "I haven't raised money or formed any committees"--and has said he's merely trying to create a "dialogue," because "I'm just concerned about the direction this country is headed."

There's also the awkward fact of his CNN gig. Clark is now on the air daily analyzing the Iraq war, so for at least a few more weeks he'll be just another talking head. Though some have lumped Clark in with the likes of Barry McCaffrey, the most strident of the yip-yap TV generals, he's actually been fairly measured in his criticism of the administration's war plan and its execution. Like most army vets, Clark has said he would have preferred having more ground troops involved. But he has also challenged the Pentagon's critics by harking back to his own problems in Kosovo. When Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers defended the Pentagon's war plan last week, Clark said afterward:

I think Dickie Myers has a very solid point when he says, if you're not on the inside of the plan, you really can't understand the [diplomatic and military] tradeoffs that were done to make the plan come out that way. As we talked before [regarding] my experience in Kosovo, it's very difficult, it's really impossible to criticize a plan when you haven't been on the inside of it.

Clark's backers say that he'll make his decision about running for president when the war ends. New Hampshire Democratic activist George Bruno, who's been shepherding Clark around the state and encouraging him to run, says that after the war Clark will do "his assessment, as you do in the military, something called an AAR, an after-action report. I think you'll probably see him make an AAR to the nation. And at that point, people can assess whether the kind of leadership he's offering makes sense or not."

Democrats I spoke with had wildly varying opinions on whether Clark has already waited too long to get into the race. Bruno and others believe the war has created a political pause that will allow candidates to enter the race later than usual--perhaps as late as September. (Bruno notes that Bill Clinton didn't announce his campaign and begin traveling to New Hampshire until the fall of 1991.)