September 18, 2003

The Scourge of Richard Cohen, Vol. XCII

(Ed. -- The following is a bit of mean spiritedness that will be an on-going feature of this blog. Normally the author will endeavor to be reasonably fair, but this is an exception.)

Right on cue, Richard Cohen jumps into the fray with the DNC flavor du jour, proving once again that Dicks dig a man in uniform. But which Wesley Clark are we to learn about today? The unreal Wesley Clark? The surreal Wesley Clark? The Israel Wesley Clark? (Sometimes these free-word association stream-of-consciousness homophones take us to strange places.) No, feet of clay planted firmly in the phenomenologically knowable universe, Richard gives us The Real Wesley Clark:

All around Washington last week -- and before and after on the phone -- I've been busy asking people about Wesley Clark.

That is a strange sentence from a strange man. Oh, you don’t think Richard’s strange? Well, how about this?

I talked with people who worked with him, some of them very closely, asking over and over again a variation of the same question: Is Wesley Clark too weird for prime time?

And, presumably, getting the same puzzled expression from everyone whose next call was to General Clark to inform him that some strange man was asking the same strange question about him over and over.

Let me first tell you why I asked the question:

Lack of imagination?

It's because Clark in effect got fired from the Pentagon.

That was my second guess. Hmm, would that mean that Linda Tripp, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White, and Admiral John Poindexter are also too weird for prime time?

Not to put too fine a point on it, ...

Say I'm the only bee in your bonnet. Sorry.

... then-Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, joined by many of Clark's colleagues, came to just plain dislike him.

Tickers to Evers to Chance they weren’t.

Some of this had to do with policy -- the Kosovo campaign -- and some with their suspicion that Clark went over their heads to the White House. But some of it was deeply personal.

The Clinton White House, the complete embodiment of the personal being the political.

Clark is sometimes compared to Eisenhower, another general who went into politics.

Only by people that know nothing about Eisenhower. Most other generals that entered politics at this level didn’t fare too well.

But Ike was beloved.

For good reason.

That's a word that never comes up when Clark is discussed.

For good reason?

He is undoubtedly brilliant -- a Rhodes scholar and first in his class at West Point. He is a fine athlete and a Vietnam combat veteran who was decorated for bravery. He won the respect, even the awe, of his colleagues, but too much of the time he did not win their friendship.

There’s undoubtedly a lot to respect in the accomplishments and success of General Clark. Anybody who knows any 3- or 4-star generals knows that they are people of enormous capability and drive.

The rap on Clark is that he lacks precisely those qualities that define a politician, particularly warmth and affability.

That could be a problem when our commander-in-chief must also be our empathizer-in-chief.

David Halberstam, in his book "War in a Time of Peace," writes of Clark that even his most steadfast champion in the army, Gen. John Shalikashvili, recognized that Clark was too brash, too cocky, too driven, too self-absorbed, too hard on subordinates, too dismissive of critics and criticism -- but also too brilliant and talented to be overlooked. Shali promoted him.

Shali? A little more respect here might be in order for General Shalikashvili.

Shalikashvili's bottom line is precisely what I kept finding in the people I talked to. To a person, they acknowledged Clark's flaws but said they were minor compared with his assets. One former Clinton administration official described Clark as "a little arrogant ... not beloved by his colleagues ... self-centered ... high-maintenance" but said he would support him in a heartbeat.

Those don’t exactly sound like the qualities that get someone to that rank.

Clearly, some of the palpable excitement about Clark in Democratic circles comes from an equally palpable yawn about the rest of the Democratic field.

Come on Dick, you can say it… he towers over the dwarves.

The only candidate who has so far generated any excitement is Howard Dean.

But now that the minstrels have been eaten, what are they to do for sustenance?

But if the Bush team could digitally create the perfect patsy candidate it would be Dean. He's gaffe-prone, defensive when criticized and, fairly or not (mostly not), will be characterized as an elitist liberal. Besides, he is the governor of a virtual quilt -- a state (Vermont) with 114 covered bridges and fewer minorities than the DAR.

Dick is still firmly in the Clinton camp, and the knives are out for Howard.

Clark is a different story altogether. Like Dean, he opposed the war in Iraq -- but it's hard to hang a peacenik label on someone with a Silver Star.

No it isn’t. That’s like saying it’s hard to hang a lunatic label on former Attorneys General, though Ramsey Clark would be Exhibit A. Say, they aren’t related are they? Anyway, there is another General currently serving as the Secretary of State who has been famously reluctant for not wanting to engage, though to his credit, when the decision has been made he executes it to the best of his ability.

His "state," the Army, is far bigger than Dean's and far more diversified. Still, it's a reach to say Clark has any experience with domestic issues -- schools, welfare or, in Iowa, ethanol.

Ethanol in Iowa. Hmm, that might explain the strange pronouncements from Senator Harkin’s steak fry last week. At the very least, it might explain why they were frying steaks.

That is bound to matter. What will matter more is whether the American people feel at ease with Clark. In a television era, sheer likability is essential. This is why the spectacularly qualified Al Gore lost to (or tied) George Bush, who was ill prepared for the job and has since repudiated just about everything he said during the campaign about foreign affairs.

Spectacularly qualified. Snort.

People liked Bush.

I like Bush.

The rest is commentary.

And Scourge.

Much about Clark is both intriguing and exciting.

Uh oh, here comes the hagiography.

On paper he is almost a perfect general election candidate for the Democrats -- a southerner (Arkansas), moderate, pro-choice, smart as a whip and inoculated against talk-radio demagoguery that equates thought with treason.

The word “treason” gets thrown around casually an awful lot these days by the Angry Left. I guess John Ashcroft’s Jack-Booted Dissent Crushing Brigades™ aren’t doing their job thoroughly enough.

The man, as it happens, has taken a bullet.

General Clark’s service to his country merits nothing but admiration and respect. But it has nothing to do with his fitness to be President.

Nonetheless, Clark warrants special scrutiny. It's not that I don't trust those who know him best -- although some boost his candidacy out of self-interest -- but rather that the personal qualities that bothered his critics would be intolerable in a president.

Why? Sounds like he treated his subordinates the same way Clinton did and we all know what a great president he was.

We like our presidents as we like our morning TV hosts -- comfy.

What’s the “we” stuff Kemosabe? Comfy is not what I’m looking for in a president when we are at war.

"He can run, but he can't hide," Joe Louis once said about an upcoming opponent -- and a bit of that is true about a presidential campaign as well.

I wasn’t aware that General Clark is trying to hide from anyone. What the hell is Dick talking about?

The wearying nature of the slog to the White House, the quaint intimacy of campaign events in New Hampshire and Iowa and especially the omnipresence of television will ultimately tell the American people what they want to know about Wes Clark.

Boxers or briefs?

It will not be, as some would have it, whether he knows much about domestic policy but whether he knows much about himself.

I hope for General Clark’s sake that his suit isn’t as empty as this column.

Posted by Charles Austin at September 18, 2003 11:32 PM