- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

A month ago, the possibility that this column would carry back-to-back pieces on presidential contenders was closer to none than to slim. But the entry of retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark into the race changed a number of things. Indeed, the latest polls show Mr. Clark, for the moment, atop the Democratic crowd running for the Oval Office and ahead of President Bush.

Mr. Clark’s appeal combines charisma, experience and good timing. Americans in general seem increasingly uncomfortable about how Iraq and the economy are being handled. Of course, the third year of any administration’s first term is usually accompanied by declining popularity. And new allegations that the White House may have leaked sensitive information disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent either to discredit or punish her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, are wild cards with potentially explosive impact

Voters see Mr. Clark as articulate, attractive and exceedingly intelligent. They are beginning to learn he is also controversial, indeed polarizing. Admirers and opponents hold strongly differing views that alternately describe him as both brilliant and “goofy.” As Republicans and Democrats delve more deeply into Mr. Clark’s record, this divide will likely widen.

But is this newcomer to politics and a general to boot capable of gaining the nomination? And is he, as a former general, electable?

First, two small vignettes: Mr. Clark is fearless, and not only in battle. When an armored personnel carrier caromed off a narrow road on Mount Igman in Bosnia in 1995 and fell hundreds of meters, Mr. Clark was the first to attempt a rescue, navigating a suspected minefield. Tragically, the three Americans aboard were killed.

Second, commitments, even small ones, carry weight with Mr. Clark. At the height of the Kosovo bombing campaign, Mr. Clark found time to honor a long-standing commitment to his alma mater, West Point, as a keynote speaker at a major conference. Appearing by video, Mr. Clark was poised and relaxed, despite the stress of the war and the fact that it was well after midnight his time.

For the Democrats, Mr. Clark poaches on John Kerry’s turf as the experienced hand, who also was much decorated in war. Mr. Clark also competes with former Gov. Howard Dean for the populist vote. And, if elected, he would usurp Joe Lieberman’s destiny as the first president with Jewish blood. Mr. Clark’s father was of that faith. Thus, despite the late entry, Mr. Clark is very much a contender.

Among Republicans as well as detractors, Mr. Clark already has been attacked beyond lack of elected office. Mr. Clark was relieved early as supreme allied commander in Europe after winning the 78-day Yugoslavian war in 1999. Gen. Hugh Shelton, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently cited character and integrity as the reasons. It was reported that Mr. Clark, not on the Army’s list for promotion to four stars, used political connections to obtain higher rank. And photographs of him with Yugoslavia’s most infamous war criminals — then-President Slobodan Milosevic and Gen. Ratko Mladic — were far from flattering.

About his early retirement, Mr. Clark notes that the only direct order he received from the Pentagon was to “keep his face off television,” a far cry from Gen. Eisenhower’spre-Normandy instructions “to occupy the continent and destroy the Nazi war machine.” The Army’s recommended promotion list often is unheeded. Unable to get his first choice for Army Chief of Staff (who declined due to family health problems), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ignored the Army’s choices for the new chief and went to the retired list instead. And Mr. Rumsfeld himself had the distinction of shaking Saddam’s hand when he visited Baghdad as President Reagan’s Special middle east representative. So what?

As to whether a general can be an effective president, that answer is clearer. Eleven have been president. But only four were professional soldiers who completed at least one term (Eisenhower, Grant, Jackson and Washington). They have about the same record of success as the five former governors (FDR, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43) and six former members of Congress (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Bush 41) who ascended to the presidency over the past 70 years.

Gen. Clark’s place in history is far different from Eisenhower’s. Kosovo was not Eisenhower’s crusade in Europe. And there are other generals against whom Mr. Clark will be measured. Gen. MacArthur and Gen. Marshall are two. The third, of course, is one of America’s most admired figures, Colin Powell.

For the moment, and despite what pundits labeled a lackluster Democratic presidential debate last Thursday, Wes’ entry has had salutary effect on the proceedings. Whether he succeeds at winning a slot at either the top or the bottom of the ticket is unknowable. But people are taking notice. And that must be good for the system.

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