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Requiem for a Lightweight

General Wesley Clark leaves the race and takes his amazing résumé with him.

6:40 AM, Feb 11, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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WHEN WESLEY CLARK formally bows out of the race later today, it's won't be because, as his son has recently charged, the media did him in. It will be because the man, by some accounts a decent fellow who served his country well, was not ready for prime time.

In truth, journalists were never as hard on Clark as they could have been. Clark's biggest misstep--his conspiracy theory on Iraq--is relatively famous. Less so are his smaller gaffes, which littered the campaign trail and made it clear to anyone watching that he had virtually no grasp on domestic American political issues.

My favorite Clark moment came one afternoon last month at the University of New Hampshire. The general gave a coherent and interesting talk about American involvement in Iraq. Then, during the Q&A session, one student asked him, "What would you do to protect us from corporate special interests?"

Without pausing even for a moment, Clark replied, "Well I'm the right person to do that job because I know about corporations. I've been on lots of boards of directors."

It was the perfect essence of Clark: self-assured, self-referential, self-parody.

ON THE ROAD, Clark had other moments of confusion (despite the fact that he often spoke with notes). After calling for total and unlimited access to abortion (he told the Manchester Union Leader that he didn't think "the law should get involved in abortion" at all), he clarified his remarks, telling reporters, "I support the established law, Roe v. Wade and Casey." A sensible enough retreat, except that as reporters pressed him, it became clear that Clark had no idea what the decisions from Roe v. Wade and Casey said.

While Clark favored rote repetition with topics he didn't understand, he had a tendency to freelance when he was comfortable with the subject. One night in New Hampshire, he told an audience, "We're going to go to the Saudis and the Pakistanis and we're going to end the hatred, the invective, the funding, the madrassas, and help change those regimes in the Middle East."

THE ONLY SUBJECT on which Clark demonstrated complete mastery was his own résumé. It was his touchstone. Never content to let his accomplishments speak for themselves, Clark spoke for them. At every opportunity.

Asked by the Washington Post why so many of his peers in the Army didn't like him, Clark replied:

How do you think I could have succeeded in the military if everybody didn't like me? It's impossible. Do you realize I was the first person promoted to full colonel in my entire year group of 2,000 officers? I was the only one selected. Do you realize that? . . . Do you realize I was the only one of my West Point class picked to command a brigade when I was picked? . . . I was the first person picked for brigadier general. You have to balance this out. . . . A lot of people love me.

When the same question came up with the New Yorker he was ever-so-slightly more modest:

In the United States Army, from the time I was a West Point captain, really, I was sort of a marked man. There are three terrible things that can happen to you in the United States Army, if you're an officer. You can win a congressional Medal of Honor. You can be a Heisman Trophy winner. Or you can be a Rhodes Scholar.

The Clark CV was a topic for all occasions. Speaking to a Planned Parenthood group on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Clark began by talking about his staunch support for abortion, but within minutes had moved on to his accomplishments in Kosovo. The result was hilarious. "I stood up for human rights in Bosnia. I stood up for human rights in Kosovo. And I'll stand up for human rights right here in America," he told the abortion-rights crowd.

When pressed about his early vacillation on the Iraq war, his résumé came out again. He told the Associated press, "I bobbled the question. Even Rhodes scholars make mistakes."

IF THERE IS ONE TRAGEDY in Clark's withdrawal, it's that the public will be denied further exposure to his son, Wes Junior. The young man who was once the campaign's biggest booster ("I was begging my dad to run for president") has soured on politics as of late, calling the race "a really disillusioning experience."

Wes seems to be more of Michael Moore Democrat, than a Wesley Clark Democrat. He told Greta Van Susteren, "If young people want to wake up and see what's going on in this country, I think they're going to get out and vote. . . . A lot of people are worried about a draft."