The Magazine

Does Clark Have a Prayer?

From the January 26, 2004 issue: With the general in New Hampshire.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Manchester, New Hampshire

IT'S AROUND 1 P.M. on Tuesday, January 13, and General Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO and Democratic presidential candidate, is visiting Child Health Services, a clinic for low-income children. He's locked in conversation with one Janet Clark, the director of special medical pediatrics, who has worked here for 20 years, and who is not, she is quick to say, related to the candidate. She mentions that the center engages in "child advocacy."

"What is 'advocacy'?" asks the general, interrupting. "That's a term of art. What does it mean? Lay it out for me: A, B, C, and D."

Janet Clark proceeds to explain, and the general stares at her with wide, unblinking brown eyes. After the impromptu lecture, he shakes hands with the staff. He donates a stuffed animal to the toy bank. He takes a quick tour of the facility, which is decorated in bold, primary colors, and asks questions about children's health issues, the clinic's funding, and what he as president could do to help.

During the general's tour, I chat with the receptionist. She mentions that John Edwards is scheduled to deliver a speech at Child Health Services later this afternoon. Clark's staffers, she confides, "weren't too happy about that."

They had reason not to be. Edwards, who has visited the clinic before, will speak in the "community room," a relatively spacious area with over a dozen chairs for press. Clark, meanwhile, has been assigned the cramped "adolescent waiting area," where about 50 journalists, photographers, and camera crews are jostling for space around the square table where Clark will hold a discussion with employees. "You'll need to pick a smaller room next time," grouses a CNN cameraman to a Clark campaign aide.

"We're still humble," says Jamal Simmons, Clark's spokesman. "We don't expect anybody to show up."

That's because Clark, who is 59, is an unconventional candidate and a latecomer to Democratic politics. Until October he was a registered Independent. He's given talks at Republican fundraisers, and has intermittently praised the Bush administration. His background is full of superlatives--a Rhodes scholar, he graduated at the top of his class at West Point and is a champion swimmer, a retired four-star general, and a lover of Plato. But the last time he ran for office, it was for president of his 12th-grade class. He lost.

Hence the surprise at the Clark surge here in recent weeks. As the other Democratic candidates flocked to Iowa in preparation for the January 19 caucuses (in which Clark is not competing), and went to work beating each other up with attack ads and verbal barbs, General Clark stayed in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on January 27. As Joe Trippi, frontrunner Howard Dean's campaign manager, put it, "[Clark's] been shooting free throws by himself on one end of the court while we've been throwing elbows at each other at the other end."

From Clark's point of view, it's working. His poll numbers are up, as is attendance at the now-daily "Conversations with Clark" town-hall meetings, which are held throughout the state. One poll, from the American Research Group, shows that Clark has edged out Senator John Kerry for second place in New Hampshire, and is within 5 points of Dean. The Clark boomlet has attracted media from around the country and beyond--a crew from ZDF, a German television station, is here, along with CNN, ABC, CBS, and others. "I'd say we doubled our press every day for the last couple of days," says one of Clark's press aides.

The other candidates, of course, are doing their best to drag Clark back into the mosh pit. Nervously eyeing the general's ascent in the polls, Howard Dean called Clark a "Republican." The Lieberman campaign sent several pairs of flip-flops to Clark 2004 headquarters, taunting the candidate over his conflicting statements about the war in Iraq. Not to be left out, the Kerry campaign has dispatched volunteers to crash Clark events, where they pass out flyers attacking the general's record.

Clark hasn't fought back. Instead, he's labeled the attacks "old-style politics." Which is, come to think of it, a good phrase to describe Clark's behavior as he sits down to his "roundtable" with a group of social workers and pediatricians who work at Child Health Services. Clark seems tired; his voice is hoarse, and he rushes through parts of his stump speech: "America needs leadership," he says. He's "going to put America back to work." He's "a big believer in family values," which means, among other things, "taking care of the environment."

It's standard Democratic primary fare, until Clark notices that the clinicians are uncomfortable with the dozens of cameras looming over their shoulders. Don't worry about the cameras, he tells them. A good way to ignore the whirr and buzz: "Imagine we're microbes on Mars."

"And these," he continues, gesturing toward the journalists surrounding him, "are the explorers." A bunch of us snicker at the bizarre analogy. But the clinic workers don't seem to mind.

After the roundtable, I ask Janet Clark what she thinks of the candidate. She tells me that she is a Democrat, and is planning to vote in the primary, but today, she's "just an impartial observer." Rebuffed, I turn to a 12-year-old boy who's here because his mother works at the clinic.

"And you?" I ask. "What did you think?" He looks at me and shrugs.

THE NEXT DAY finds General Clark at the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, where he is scheduled to speak on homeland security. Outside, a Kerry volunteer hands out flyers labeled "What Wes Clark Told the Concord Monitor About 9/11." They summarize an interview in which Clark stated, "We are not going to have one of these incidents"--meaning a 9/11-magnitude terrorist attack--if he is elected president.

It was an imprudent thing to say--can anyone guarantee there won't be another big attack on U.S. soil?--and after the other campaigns pounced, Clark was forced to backtrack. Not for the first time.

Start with his stance on the war in Iraq. These days, Clark is vehemently antiwar. The U.S. invasion, he says, was part of a "bait and switch" executed by the administration on the American people. "I've been against this war from the beginning," he tells audiences.

Clark's position, in fact, has been considerably more nuanced. Last September, shortly after he announced his candidacy, the general had a 45-minute talk with a group of reporters. In the course of the discussion, the Washington Post reported, Clark said he "probably" would have voted to authorize the war if he had been a member of Congress in the fall of 2002. He added that his views on Iraq resembled those of Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, both of whom voted to authorize the conflict.

And both of whom, in all probability, would have agreed with Clark in 2002, when he told the Associated Press that, although he had "reservations" about a possible war, he saw some logic to President Bush's position. "Certainly in certain cases we should go to war before our enemies strike," Clark said. "And I think this situation applies here, [italics added] but I am not sure we should write it down and publish [the doctrine of preventive war] as policy."

In the spring of 2003, as American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Clark wrote several columns for the Times of London in which he praised the U.S. military effort. "Liberation is at hand," he wrote. "Liberation--the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions." Later in the same essay, Clark praised the war's architects: "President Bush and Tony Blair should be proud of their resolve in the face of so much doubt." (Last week, Clark reassessed the Bush presidency, telling an audience in Dallas that "I think we're dealing with the most closed, imperialistic, nastiest administration in living memory. They even put Richard Nixon to shame.")

Another misstep came on January 11, when a videotape surfaced of Clark in October 2002 saying, "Certainly there's a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda." Since running for president, Clark has said otherwise.

What he meant, Clark explained to the New York Times, was: "I never thought there would be any evidence linking September 11 and Saddam Hussein. Everything I had learned about Saddam Hussein told me that he would be the last person al Qaeda would trust or that he would trust them."

Then there's the interview Clark gave to the editorial board of the Manchester Union Leader in early January. When asked his position on abortion, Clark said, "I don't think you should get the law involved in abortion--"

"At all?" asked a puzzled Joseph W. McQuaid, the Union Leader's publisher.

"Nope," Clark said.

"Late-term abortion? No limits?"

"Nope," Clark said.

"Anything up to delivery?"

"Nope, Nope."

"Anything up to the head coming out of the womb?"

"I say that it's up to the woman and her doctor, her conscience. . . . You don't put the law in there," Clark said.

Again, Clark was later forced to "clarify" his position, which, it turns out, does not sanction infanticide.

But these missteps have done little to stop Clark's rise in New Hampshire, and the Kerry supporter handing out attack literature at the Franklin Pierce Law Center is, for the most part, ignored. Inside, a packed crowd waits patiently for Clark, who starts his speech 40 minutes late. It's a diverse group of voters, equal parts students and senior citizens. Pop music is piped in over a loudspeaker--at one point, Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" plays. Madonna is a Clark supporter. But the general, one campaign aide says, is not necessarily a Madonna fan. (He's told reporters that his favorite music act is the band Journey. "It's this song called 'Don't Stop Believin'," he said. "It's the music I remember.")

When Clark enters the lecture hall, the audience explodes into applause. A few people stand. Others snap pictures.

For the most part, the speech is Democratic boilerplate. "We're short on homeland security and long on homeland insecurity," Clark says. But there are a few interesting ideas. For example, in order to make us more secure, Clark proposes a "combined Joint Counterterrorism Strike-Force," formed under NATO, which would include troops from countries outside the alliance, among them "Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates." The strike force's mission would be to go into the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan and "capture or kill" Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders. Says Clark, "We've always had the ability to confront al Qaeda and defeat it." The implication is that the Bush administration, for some reason or another, doesn't want to.

After the speech, Clark's campaign bus, the "Wes Express," spirits journalists to a "Conversation with Clark" in Hudson, about 30 miles away. As the press van makes its way toward the event, where Clark will answer questions from voters, I talk with a reporter from one of the major news networks who has followed Clark for several months. It's the usual chitchat--where we're from, where we went to school--and after a few minutes, we fall back into silence.

For a moment, anyway. "It's funny," the reporter says eventually, under her breath. "I can't believe [Clark's] doing so well all of a sudden."

"Why is that?" I ask.

"Because he's so damn crazy."

THE GENERAL IS NOT REALLY CRAZY. But, when you listen to him speak, it's hard not to notice that he has a slightly paranoid view of the Bush administration. He's said, for example, that the White House tried to have him fired from CNN, where he was a commentator during the Iraq war. He's said that "there's no way" the Bush administration "can walk away from its responsibility in 9/11." He meant that the administration did not do enough to protect America from terrorist attack--because it was preoccupied with war against Saddam Hussein.

In his recent book, "Winning Modern Wars," as well as on the stump, Clark says that, in a visit to the Pentagon several months after September 11, he had a conversation with "a man with three stars who used to work for me." Clark's former subordinate showed him a "list of countries" that the Bush administration had targeted for invasion. According to Clark, the list was part of a "five-year plan" for regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. Clark has presented no evidence to back this up, other than what he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a few months ago: "You only have to listen to the gossip around Washington and to hear what the neoconservatives are saying, and you will get the flavor of this."

Last week, Clark found new "proof" for his theory. In an interview former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill gave to "60 Minutes," as well as in "The Price of Loyalty," a new book by journalist Ron Suskind, O'Neill charges that the administration was planning to invade Iraq as early as January 2001. On the day of the "60 Minutes" interview, Clark released this statement: "Today, Paul O'Neill confirmed what I have been saying all along: The Bush administration's focus on Iraq was not tied to the war on terror. It was a long-standing plan that was discussed from the opening days of the Bush White House."

O'Neill's allegations--which are actually quite different from what Clark has alleged--have made their way into the general's stump speech. At the Franklin Pierce Law Center, Clark said, "The only name we hear [from Bush] is Saddam Hussein, and the only country we hear about is Iraq. According to former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, this isn't a coincidence: The Bush administration started planning their actions against Iraq during their first days in the White House . . . despite being warned that our greatest threat was Osama bin Laden."

The charge that President Bush was plotting regime change in Iraq and elsewhere early in his presidency has become the Clark campaign's central foreign-policy issue. "The Bush administration has an unhealthy obsession with Iraq," says Bill Buck, a Clark spokesman. "9/11 was an excuse to topple Hussein. That's what we're going to talk about."

And they're going to talk about it at places like Alvirne High School, in Hudson, the scene of Wednesday night's "Conversation with Clark." Like the general's speech in Concord, the "conversation" takes place before a standing-room-only audience, which is an achievement in itself on a night so cold that the Kerry supporters picketing outside resemble nothing so much as screaming, adolescent Eskimos.

Before the general enters the school cafeteria, where the conversation will take place, I watch a screening of "American Son," Clark's campaign film, made by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the Hollywood producer responsible for Bill Clinton's syrupy biopic, "The Man from Hope." Thomason is one of many Clinton allies who have signed on with the general. Others include former Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers, former Clinton economic officials Mickey Kantor and Laura Tyson, former State Department spokesman James Rubin, Democratic congressmen Rahm Emmanuel and Charles Rangel--and, to some extent, former President Clinton himself, who speaks with Clark campaign chair Eli Segal daily and, according to the New York Post, has made fundraising calls in support of Clark (Clinton's office denied the report).

Clinton has not made an official endorsement. But many of his surrogates will descend on New Hampshire on Saturday, January 17, to campaign for the general. They will be joined by, among others, Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power, and the filmmakers Barry Levinson and Michael Moore. "These are all individuals involved with the campaign," says Bill Buck, when I ask him if Clinton had any role in organizing the January 17 event. "They've each expressed interest in being involved."

The Clinton connection has its advantages. It's helped Clark collect money--he'd raised about $10 million by December 31; only Howard Dean raised more. And it's also helped a neophyte gain his political footing. Signature Clinton phrases have made their way into Clark's stump speech. On Monday, for example, during his appearance at Child Health Services, Clark told the press that no parent who "works hard and plays by the rules" should raise a child in poverty. Clark may not be a political natural, as journalist Joe Klein has called the former president, but he is a quick study.

You get a sense of how far the Clark campaign has come when you watch "American Son." The slickly produced, 15-minute film attempts to sell General Clark's main strength: his biography. It is largely successful in doing so. One voter tells Clark after the film that, while he "expected to be impressed" when he showed up to see the general, he did not expect to have tears in his eyes. Campaign aides say this is a not uncommon reaction. The Clark campaign has already distributed 50,000 copies of the DVD to New Hampshire voters, and one Clark strategist tells me there are plans to distribute 20,000 more.

Clark enters the cafeteria to another standing ovation, after an introduction by a teacher from the school, who says the candidate "has spent countless hours thinking about the tough issues."

Maybe. Clark has definitely spent countless hours delivering his stump speech, which he has honed to perfection. By the end, he has the audience on its feet. Afterwards, the crowd mobs Clark. Ahmad Jackson, the general's personal assistant, has to pull him away from talking to every last voter. The scene seemed to confirm what Chris Lehane, Clark's senior communications strategist, told the Washington Post recently: "Something's happening here."

But what exactly? One morning in January, I meet with Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and an expert on New Hampshire's political demographics. Smith says that while Howard Dean's hard-core supporters still support the former Vermont governor, less-committed voters are wary of Dean's anger. These voters now support Clark. "If you think of the Dean campaign as a balloon," Smith tells me, "the air is seeping out a little bit. The message that's come from the other camps that Dean is unelectable is starting to take hold. This is the time of the campaign where moderate and conservative Democratic voters turn their attention to the election."

As we talk, Smith fidgets with his empty coffee cup. The main problem for Clark, he says, is that his campaign operation is not as well-oiled as Dean's. "I don't think Clark has people with the sort of intimate knowledge of politics that Dean's people have," he tells me. "A lot of the Clinton people have been through campaigns here, but not recently."

Clark's main advantage, on the other hand, is that he's the only candidate who has proved he can raise money as quickly as Dean. Says Smith, "The primary process will come down to money. It always comes down to money. If there's a bunch-up, if there are close races in both Iowa and New Hampshire, then Clark can go to the other states, the southern, more conservative states, and say, 'I'm the only guy who can stop Dean.'"

"Is he?" I ask. "Does Clark even have a chance?"

Smith pauses. "It's a slim chance," he says. "But it's a chance."

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.