The Magazine

Drafting General Clark

From the September 1 / September 8, 2003 issue: Another slippery candidate from Arkansas.

Sep 1, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 48 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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GENERAL WESLEY K. CLARK is running for president. Maybe. With little over a year left before the 2004 election, NATO's former supreme allied commander hasn't announced his candidacy. But Clark sure is considering a run as a Democrat for commander in chief, as he tells any reporter who will listen to him.

Clark certainly acts like a presidential candidate. He appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" in June. In July, he fielded questions from George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week." In August, he entered CNN's "Crossfire" and appeared on "NewsNight with Aaron Brown." Media coverage of the general, a former Rhodes scholar who graduated at the top of his class at West Point, is positive. This isn't surprising. Clark, at 58, is an intelligent, articulate, and telegenic retired general who led a coalition of 19 often querulous nations to victory in the Kosovo conflict.

Clark's supporters like to compare him to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both men were successful generals who led NATO. Most important, both were recruited to run for president. A group of "Draft Clark" activists has pushed the general to run through petitions and websites. Taking cues from Eisenhower's 1952 campaign, the activists want Clark to play the reluctant warrior who is called to serve his country in a time of crisis. They've even made a television commercial that has already aired in New Hampshire.

But the Eisenhower comparison breaks down on close inspection, for a couple of reasons. While few people outside politics have heard of Clark, Eisenhower was one of the most popular figures in American history. On television, Clark speaks as if there were a public outcry for a change in leadership today, just as there was when Eisenhower was pressured into running for president in 1952. But Clark's analysis flies in the face of President Bush's approval ratings, which hover around 60 percent.

Then there's the question of partisanship. Ike hadn't even voted for president when he first ran for the office, and he ran as a Republican largely by default. Clark strikes a similar pose. He refuses to admit that he's a Democrat. "I haven't said [that I'd run as a Democrat]," Clark said on NBC. "I've been nonpartisan. I'm a centrist on most of these issues, and I've got people after me from both sides of the aisle." He often mentions that he was a White House fellow in the Ford administration, though White House fellows aren't appointed by the president.

Aping Eisenhower, Clark would like to appear nonpartisan. But the truth is Clarke's a moderate Democrat. This isn't too hard to figure out: Speculation about a presidential bid started when Clark met with some Democratic fundraisers in New York City last October. Clark has encouraged Howard Dean's insurgency. And he's voted in Democratic primaries in Arkansas--an act that requires him to be a registered Democrat.

Clark's refusal to admit he's a Democrat points to his biggest liability. He's a slippery character whose public statements remind you of a fellow Rhodes scholar from Arkansas. It turns out that Clark's supporters compare the general to the wrong president. Clark is more Clinton than Eisenhower.

Just look at Clark's story, first told on "Meet the Press," that he received a call on 9/11 from "people around the White House" urging him to publicly link the terrorist attacks to Saddam Hussein. On Fox's "Hannity and Colmes" two weeks later, Clark pinned the call on "a fellow in Canada who is part of a Middle Eastern think tank who gets inside intelligence information." When Hannity pressed Clark further, the general ended the line of questioning by saying he wouldn't "go into" his White House sources. A month after Clark's charge was picked up by columnist Paul Krugman, the New York Times published a letter from Clark attempting to clarify his story. This time, Clark said the only phone call he received was from a man at a "Middle East think tank" in Canada.

There's only one problem. There isn't really a "Middle East think tank" in Canada. "If there were any, I'd be able to come up with their names pretty quickly," says David Rudd, president of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. "If Clark was contacted by any purported experts or scholars, chances are they would be connected to a university."

There's also the question of Clark's involvement with the "Draft Clark" activists. Both Clark and the various groups encouraging his presidential ambitions say that there is no communication between the two camps. The record suggests otherwise. Two days after Clark told Tim Russert that he was "going to have to consider" running for president, "Draft Clark 2004" filed with the Federal Elections Commission to become a PAC.