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Tales from the Primary Trail: Gen. Wesley Clark to the Rescue?
November 18, 2003
By Michael McCord

Editor's Note: Democratic Underground welcomes articles about individual Democratic candidates for political office. Publication of these articles does not imply endorsement of any candidate by the editors of Democratic Underground.

One day after 31 Italians and Iraqis died in a terrorist attack in Nasariya, Iraq, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark stepped again into the parallel universe known as the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. Clark's latest visit to the seaside city of Portsmouth coincided with a Bush administration emergency meeting in Washington, D.C. to deal with the growing political mess and military frustration in "liberated" Iraq.

The Iraqi insurgents and the American handpicked Iraqi Governing Council aren't providing much support to Bush's reelection efforts and it's time for the latest policy shift towards something that can best be interpreted as force-fed democracy. It's also time to change the story line and accompanying visuals - which explains why U.S. Senate Republicans took to the floor for a 40-hour slip into the rabbit hole to highlight the fates of a few right-wing judges trapped in filibuster purgatory by Senate Democrats. Time to forget, for a day or a few news cycles, about deadly guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops, those missing weapons of mass destruction and "Mission Accomplished" - it was "Justice for Judges" day at the D.C. day care center.

Here's the rub. Unlike any New Hampshire primary since 1968, when the insurgent candidacy of Sen. Eugene McCarthy caught fire following the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the issue of foreign affairs really matters. What happens in Baghdad and Nasariya is shaping events on the primary ground in Concord, Manchester, and Keene - which might play into the strengths of Gen. Clark with his four-star resume (top in his class at West Point, Rhodes Scholar, wounded in Vietnam, architect of the successful, controversial, and mostly anonymous Kosovo conflict and CNN military analyst) and the aura of a modern-day Cincinnatus called to duty in September by a grass-root draft movement.

As a late arrival to the grueling primary process, Clark's "New American Patriotism" campaign is making up for lost time (there hasn't been such a late arrival by a name candidate since 1988 when Gary Hart returned to the race after dropping out following the "Monkey Business" sex scandal). On a cool, blustery day in Portsmouth, Gen. Clark followed the well-traveled obstacle course known to all presidential candidates who dare tread into the first-in-the-solar system spectacle.

Clark politely charged (with an oversized platoon of doting, prodding staffers and media groupies like myself) into coffee shops, retail stores and restaurants to make introductions, shake hands, answer questions with wonkish, Bill Clinton-like enthusiasm (Clark is protean in either having a plan or working on a plan for everything including just the day before, a multinational plan to capture Osama Bin Laden), kiss babies and generate as much local commotion and free media buzz as possible.

A slightly built man, Clark appears to relish the infantry level grunt work required of retail campaigning and approaches unsuspecting and often candidate-weary citizens with if not the ease of a polished pol, than certainly with the confidence of someone who knows how to work a crowd, especially with his eyes which are alive, intelligent, and intense. The primary is January 27. Tick, tock, Tick, tock. So many hands to shake, so little time.

"He's the one I've been waiting for," said Dee Lemere after meeting Clark in Breaking New Ground, a trendy coffee shop in downtown Portsmouth. Lemere traveled with friends from the Lakes Region, more than an hour north. The longtime Democrat admits to being frustrated by the other candidates, even ignoring the nova-like rise of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "We need to beat Bush. He (Clark) can beat him."

ABB. Anybody but Bush. I've covered and closely followed New Hampshire primaries since 1980 and giving the heave-ho to Bush has unified Hatfield and McCoy Democrats to an unimaginable degree. And as Howard Dean discovered and successfully exploited, this Regime Change fever is being driven from below, by folks still pissed off by the 2000 election (they didn't get the memo to "get over it") and downright apoplectic about Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, grand scale environmental betrayal, the Patriot Act, and the endless parade of lies that flows out of the Bush White House. The opposition to Bush is a witches brew of the political, visceral and existential. One 30-something voter reminded me of this yet again when he said to me after meeting Clark, "He (Clark) gives me hope and doesn't try to scare the shit out of me... Bush. Cheney. Ashcroft, you name them. Man, they are fucking evil."

In Clark's Dover campaign office two days earlier, I talked to Sue Mayer, a 53-year-old educator who had jumped on the Draft Clark bandwagon a few months before. Mayer spoke bluntly about the "beyond Orwellian" antics of the Bush presidency and why Wesley Clark was her man of the hour. "I look at Dean and I think of (Eugene) McCarthy and George) McGovern and I see failure, disaster. Bush has to go and Gen. Clark is the one to do it."

Imagine a Democratic Party personal ad:

DPP (destitute political party), is tired of being confused, used, abused, lied to and bushwhacked. Am one losing election cycle away from complete DLC catatonic stupor. Yearn for a strong, mostly-principled, and articulate hero type with a compelling All-American life story to sweep me off my feet, solidify my base, seduce crossover voters and win, please win a presidential election (W. Bush-bashing is a definite turn on). Please be occasionally faithful to liberal ideals and stand up more often than not to the Neobolsheviks now cannibalizing what remains of those three branches of federal government mentioned in the textbooks. XXXOOOO.

In theory, Gen. Wesley Clark could be the right man at the right time to receive the hugs, kisses and votes and send Bush back to Texas. But can liberals and progressives find love and fulfillment with a military man and a latecomer to the Democratic Party? (Then again, perhaps Dems should rejoice that someone of his national stature joined the party. When was the last time that happened?)

Clark certainly is saying the right things. He's pro-choice, wants to repeal most of Bush's tax giveaway to the rich, supported affirmative action in a friend of the court brief to the Supreme Court, is highly critical of the USA Patriot Act, and would stop the medical marijuana crackdown of Attorney General John Ashcroft. His foreign policy vision is articulated strongly in the language of cooperation and multinational efforts to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan and the so-called war on terror (of the latter he says "the best way to fight terrorism is law enforcement," an obvious concept currently exiled by the Bush/Cheney war first, ask questions second approach.) Most of all, he's not tainted by the perceived capitulation to Bush of the Democratic Party royalty in D.C.

Jon Iarrobino, 28, of Newburyport, Mass., considers himself a liberal progressive and takes Clark seriously. "He's created a buzz and friends of mine want to know about him because of his strong support for gay and lesbian rights and his ability to be a strong commander in wartime." Arnie Arnesen, a progressive gadfly, has seen her share of contenders and pretenders in New Hampshire as a long-time, well connected democratic party activist and radio talk show host. Arnesen believes that "Clark is the real deal and someone that can bring progressives, liberals and even Reagan democrats together to beat Bush. He's very bright and articulate and can you imagine how easily he would clean Bush's clock in a debate? And who knows best when the right time is to send in the troops?" Arnesen's main complaint about Clark is less about him than his organization, an observation in wide circulation among the smart pundit set. "He started out with such a bang. Now it's a disorganized mess. It was a huge mistake to pull out of Iowa before finding out whether he could garner union support."

Clark, an Arkansas native, is the least programmed of the serious candidates which explains much of his subtle charisma and that plays well for jaded New Hampshire voters accustomed to serious face time. In Portsmouth, Clark walked down a street with a young man, explaining his "Civil Reserve" proposal, a volunteer public service plan which would send Americans out into the world to help countries in a number of ways (economic, legal, environmental), a variation on the Peace Corps theme. When the young man mentioned something about helping national park systems in Africa, Clark said "That's what Iım talking about!"

Speaking on Veteran's Day, he sent his handlers into spin control mode when he said he would support a Constitutional amendment banning flag burning, a civil liberties stance at odds with his repeatedly stated belief in the necessity of democratic dissent. When given a chance to clarify (i.e. repudiate) his remarks a few days later, Clark explained what the flag meant to him and that if "the American people want it (the flag burning amendment), I will support it."

I listened to Clark being interviewed recently on a statewide radio show and when asked what his favorite music was, he said "The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors." The Doors? Not exactly a focus group answer. (It's easy to imagine the right-wing attack dogs using this - "Clark supports anarchy, lewd debauchery and Oedipal fratricide.")

Clark candidly admits he was cautious about running because "when other generals run for office, they haven't been treated well, not taken seriously" and didn't want to seem "presumptuous."

When Clark says "I'm not a politician," of course this is a crock. One does not become a four-star general without having exceptional political skills. He once served as a White House fellow and, by most accounts, directing the Kosovo War was a daily exercise in political brinkmanship dealing with the French, British, Germans and Russians.

Clark has made unconventional tactical decisions to pull out of the pyramid-building caucus exercise in Iowa and will sit out a heavily-hyped debate next month in Manchester. He seems content to let his fellow candidates carry out the heavy Bush- (and Dean-) bashing while gliding above the fray. His strong rebukes of W. Bush are more measured than Dean's artillery salvos, based more on procedural and rational grounds than anything else. One Clark staffer told me the goal is to "finish a strong third in New Hampshire and head south" for the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday in early March.

While the political punditburo set has so far pronounced Clark a disappointment due to organizational chaos, organizational staffing (too many Clintonistas) and issue ambiguities (in particular, would he have supported the Iraq war resolution), it's still bare trees before the first snow part of the primary calender. Despite being saddled with single-digit poll numbers in New Hampshire (he polls much stronger nationally), Clark exudes the confidence of a man who has faced down Serbian strong man Slobodan Milosevic and doesn't seem too fazed by November poll numbers or chattering class conventional wisdom.

The GOP and its media sycophants are hardly disinterested spectators. For example, the boys at Fox News go out of their way to dismiss Clark as a lost cause at every opportunity (which raises the logical reply: if he's such a lost cause why keep dismissing him?) "Clark? They (Bush's reelection advisors) want Dean, are salivating for Dean," said one New Hampshire Republican to me. "They want no part of Clark because he brings too much to the table and well, frankly, highlights the Presidentıs weaknesses."


Michael McCord is an award-winning reporter and writer living in New Hampshire. He's disappointed not to be on the NRA blacklist.


More of Michael McCord's Tales from the Primary Trail:
Dr. Dean's House Calls
The Unbearable Lightness of Being John Kerry

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