General Malaise

Let me assert something that I cannot prove with a poll but that is based on serious conversations the past few months with Republicans and also normal people: 9/11 changed everything. Yes, I know you know that. But it has even changed how people who usually vote Republican think about Democratic candidates for president. Our No. 1 question used to be: Can we beat this guy easily? But now we feel the age of terrorism so profoundly challenges our country, and is so suggestive of future trauma and national pain, that our No. 1 question has become: Is he . . . normal? Just normal. Is he stable and adult and experienced?

Only then we ask if we can beat him.

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The Democratic nominee in 2004 could win the election. There may be something to the idea that Democrats in general want to get rid of George W. Bush more than Republicans in general want to keep him. One of the men running in New Hampshire tonight could become the next president, and lead the war on terror. And our country cannot afford a bit of a nut.

Which get us of course to Howard Dean. But not for long. I do not know how Democrats in New Hampshire will judge him today, but I can say with confidence that the American people will not choose him as president, because they will not want him near the nuclear arsenal.

Which gets me to Wesley Clark. Forgive me, but he seems to be another first class strange-o. He has been called arrogant and opportunistic. That’s par for the course in politics, but what worries me about Gen. Clark is that it seems to be true to greater degrees than is usual.

On the night of John Kerry’s win in Iowa, Gen. Clark went on “Larry King Live.” The other guest was Bob Dole, not exactly an ideologically rigid man. His presence seemed to signal the establishment giving a big hello and an insider’s teasing to the relatively new candidate. Remember how it went? Mr. Dole, a little emollient, then a little mischievous, told Gen. Clark, first, that “somebody [had] to lose” in Iowa and, next, that “politically you just became a colonel instead of a general.” This little barb set off a pompous harrumph of a retort: “Well, I don’t think that’s at all—Senator, with all due respect, he’s [Kerry’s] a lieutenant and I’m a general. You got to get your facts on this. He was a lieutenant in Vietnam. I’ve done all of the big leadership.” The exchange ended with Gen. Clark telling Mr. Dole that he, Wesley, had “been in a lot of tough positions in my life, one of them was leading the operation in Kosovo . . .”

“I won a war”? “I pitch a 95-mile-an-hour fastball”? “I’ve done all of the big leadership”? “I’ve been in a lot of tough positions”?

Oh no. Another one.

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Gen. Clark gives off the vibrations of a man who has no real beliefs save one: Wes Clark should be president. The rest—the actual meaning of his candidacy—he seems to be making up as he goes along. It seems a candidacy void of purpose beyond meeting the candidate’s hunger. He is passionately for the war until he announces for the Democratic nomination facing an antiwar base, at which point he becomes passionately antiwar. He thanks God that George Bush and his aides are in the White House, then he says they’re the worst leaders ever. Anyone can change his mind; but this is not a change, it’s a swerve, and without a convincing rationale. Last week, Brit Hume asked Gen. Clark when it was that he’d “first noticed” that he—Gen. Clark—was a Democrat. There was laughter, but that was a nice big juicy softball. Gen. Clark flailed and fumbled. Later he blamed Mr. Hume for being a Republican agent.

When you are making it up along the way you make mistakes that might, politely, be called tonal. It is not terrible that he was introduced the other day in New Hampshire by a bilious activist, Michael Moore, who called the president a “deserter.” Gen. Clark didn’t address the charge when he took the stage. He could have been distracted, and it certainly would have been ungracious to say, “Thanks for that introduction, which I must disavow because it suggests a grassy knoll extremism with which I cannot associate myself.” But in the days afterward Gen. Clark was repeatedly questioned about Mr. Moore’s charge. He dug the hole deeper by leaving open the possibility that it was true.

More telling is Gen. Clark on abortion. A pro-lifer wouldn’t have the smallest of chances in the Democratic Party, but a certain Clintonian politesse is expected when the question is raised. “Abortion is always a tragedy but denying a woman her reproductive rights under the Constitution would also be a tragedy”—that kind of thing. This is what Gen. Clark said when he met with the Manchester Union-Leader and was questioned by the newspaper’s Joseph McQuaid:

    Clark: I don’t think you should get the law involved in abortion—
    McQuaid: At all?
    Clark: Nope.
    McQuaid: Late-term abortion? No limits?
    Clark: Nope.
    McQuaid: Anything up to delivery?
    Clark: Nope, nope.
    McQuaid: Anything up to the head coming out of the womb?
    Clark: I say that it’s up to the woman and her doctor, her conscience. . . . You don’t put the law in there


Gen. Clark was then asked, “What about when she’s grown up and at the prom, can you kill her then?” He said, “Absolutely. Chase her across the dance floor. This is a personal decision for the mother.” Oh—sorry—I made that last part up. He did not advocate killing children 18 years after they’re born. Though one wonders why not. Maybe he does have nuance. His campaign tried to spin it into a plus. He forgot to speak “artfully,” “precisely.” But he was nothing if not precise. He forgot to speak sanely.

All of this was captured by Camille Paglia last summer, in an interview with Salon that at the time struck me as extreme and now seems prescient. Asked what she, as a pro-military Democrat, thinks of the retired general, she said: “What a phony! . . . Clark reminds me of Keir Dullea in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’—a blank, vacant expression, detached and affectless.” But, said the interviewer, his supporters say he is handsome and great on TV. Ms. Paglia: “Doesn’t anyone know how to ‘read’ TV? The guy’s an android . . . a slick, boudoir, salon military type who rubbed plenty of colleagues the wrong way. Clark is not a natural man’s man. And he’s no Eisenhower. . . . This is just another hysterical boomlet, as when the nerdy Northeast media went gaga for John McCain—’Finally, a soldier we like!’”

After this interview, Gen. Clark’s military colleagues began to speak critically of him on and off the record—an apple-polishing operator who abused the chain of command. It is true that Americans respect and often support generals. But we like our generals like Eisenhower and Grant and George Marshall: We like them sober, adult and boring. The title “general” is loaded enough. We don’t want one who is temperamental and unpredictable and strange.

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And so my Democratic friends, patriots who vote Democratic and are voting in today’s primary and the ones down the road. Please. We will take Joe Lieberman or John Kerry or even young John Edwards, men who appear to be somewhere in the normal range. We need a person who could rally the nation on a terrible day, and who could arguably meet the security demands the age requires. We can’t afford flip-outs, or people who are too obviously creepy. Just a person in the normal range. Is that asking too much? Say it ain’t so. Give Gen. Clark his marching orders: Retreat!

One suspects the Democrats will send him packing. Just as one suspects he might eventually withdraw, saying something like, “You won’t have Wes Clark to kick around anymore.”