- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Well, Bill, this is a fine predicament you’ve got Miss Hillary into.

One Republican campaign consultant thinks “the Clark thing” has already spun out of control. “Clark would make the perfect running mate for Hillary, but he might ask: ‘Why are you telling me to get out? I’m the one leading the polls.’”

Indeed, the latest Gallup Poll shows the general slightly ahead of George W. Bush in a two-man matchup, and far ahead of every one of the dwarfs. This is not how Bill and Hillary envisioned the Clark phenomenon to play out en route to the Hillary “draft.”

However, the Clark phenomenon is actually not yet a phenomenon, except in the hyperventilating or the “hardball media” where hyperventilating passes for insight. The political correspondents of the major media could put lipstick on a sow and make her the homecoming queen for Saturday night.

But Sunday morning always follows Saturday night. Wesley Clark has yet to demonstrate that he is more than a figment of media hyperventilation, and the polls that show him to be “the leading candidate” are misleading. The pollsters are asking everybody, including a lot of people who won’t have anything to say about it. A Baptist preacher in Tupelo may have definite ideas about who the cardinals of Rome should choose to succeed John Paul II, but you might as well ask the Vatican cat.

The only voters who will have something to say about who the front-runner is will be the Democrats of New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and after that, maybe, primary voters in other states. These are the voters unforgiving to anyone who says nice things about Republicans. The correct way to respond to Republicans, as we know, is to hate them. Activist Democrats never think happy thoughts about someone who, as Mr. Clark did in Little Rock only two years ago, endorses George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld, all in a single mouthful.

Veephood is another matter. Nobody, not even the Bush haters at the Boston nominating convention, will get a say about who the vice presidential candidate should be. That’s for the nominee. If Hillary, the only Democrat who could get in late and match George W. in raising campaign money, is the nominee she (and Bill) would have the freedom to choose even a polite, civil Democrat.

Mr. Clark has to be good enough but not too good. Bill and Hillary can take comfort in his unsteady performance over his first 10 days. Republican meanies are even now collecting Clark-isms. Accurately quoting a candidate is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, but Mr. Clark can expect enfilading fire, anyway.

He got the first article of the Democratic catechism just right, so there’s definitely hope: “I am pro-choice, I am pro-affirmative action, I’m pro-environment, pro-health. That’s why I’m proud to be a Democrat.” (George W. is pro-disease?) The general hasn’t made any new Democratic friends, however, with his vague ideas on what to do about gay caballeros in the barracks: “I’d like to see the military relook the [“dont ask, dont tell”] policy. I didn’t say change it, I said relook it.”

The aides and managers that Mr. Clinton dispatched to “reshape” and “remold” the general were supposed to prevent this vague promising. The last candidate the Clinton missus or any Democratic nominee needs is another Bob Graham. If the general keeps up the gaffes Bill and Hillary might be forced to “relook” the general.

Such verbal adventuring can only be modified, alas, not eliminated. West Point has fine instructors in many subjects, but English is not one of them. Second lieutenants, once they leave the plain, quickly pick up the dull, mechanical, bureaucratic English preferred by the military. Dwight Eisenhower, whose speech often rivaled that of Casey Stengel (without the color), is typical of the Army. Douglas MacArthur’s poetic rhetoric, occasionally shading into purple, was the exception.

But Mr. Clark has already shown himself adaptable, moving from conservative Republican to liberal Democrat in one easy motion. When he needs unshakable convictions, the Clintons can issue such convictions, like boots and saddles. The general didn’t need strong political views of his own when he was in the Army, and he doesn’t need them now.

If he actually does catch something more authentic than St. Elmo’s fire, and against all logical expectations becomes the party’s nominee the Clintons will have to move into the saboteur mode to preserve Hillary’s fallback chances for ‘08. We can be sure they planned for this, too.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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