- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

Where are we going to find the Undean? That was the cry of Democratic power brokers as Howard Dean rose unstoppably through last year and the wise old birds fretted that he was unelectable. Judging from the polls, New Hampshire Democrats seem to have found their Undean. It’s Wesley Clark.

So now the Dem bigshots can all start looking for the Unclark.

If they aren’t already, they ought to be. Mr. Dean might be bad for the health of the party, but that’s no reason to go from bad to Wes. If the rap against Mr. Dean is that he’s gaffe-prone, shoots from the hip, says loopy stuff — that goes tenfold for Mr. Clark.

Let me say, by the way, in a spirit of bipartisanship, that I don’t believe Howard Dean is nuts. From my perch in New Hampshire, I watched him across the river governing Vermont for a decade. Although he was certainly mean and arrogant, the chief characteristic of his political persona was blandness.

But this is no time for a Democratic candidate who feels your pain. Democratic activists want someone who feels their anger, and Mad How the mad cow was pretty much invented by the somnolent Gov. Dean to fit that bill.

So I would say Howard Dean is a sane man pretending to be crazy. Whereas Mr. Clark gives every indication of a crazy man pretending to be sane.

Now I’m not talking about things like this screwy response to a question from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. The retired general had indicated he wished Osama bin Laden to be tried at The Hague and sentenced to life in prison. “But,” asked Mr. Matthews, “doesn’t life in Holland beat life in a cave?”

“Not in a Dutch prison, Chris,” said Mr. Clark. “They’re under water, they’re damp, they’re cold. They’re really miserable.”

Dutch prisons are under water? Good thing Mr. Clark’s not as dumb as George W. Bush or Dan Quayle, eh?

Nor am I talking about his flip-flops on Iraq. That’s just an extreme version of standard-issue political opportunism: If you’re a CNN military analyst who gets schmoozed into running as the standard-bearer of the antiwar movement, there are bound to be a few not entirely convincing lurches in continuity.

Nor do I mean his creepy statements on abortion, in which he is taking “pro-choice” to levels undreamed of even in NARAL’s wildest dreams. Mr. Clark’s position is no restrictions on nuthin’. Third trimester? Partial-birth abortion? Bring it on, baby. “Life begins with the mother’s decision,” says Mr. Clark. You got a 9-month-old healthy fetus, you’re in tip-top shape, you’ve started contractions and the little feller’s about to emerge, and you suddenly change your mind and decide you want a last-minute partial-birth abortion. … hey, life begins with the mother’s decision and if you say “Let there not be life,” then there won’t be. That’s not crazy so much as a sign of the general’s general laziness on this and most other domestic issues. He simply appears to have given no thought to the question.

But what shifts him from unprincipled and thoughtless to the out-of-his-tree category is stuff like this:

“If I had been president, I would have had Osama bin Laden by this time.” And: “I’m going to take care of the American people. We are not going to have one of these incidents. I think the two greatest lies that have been told in the last three years are: You couldn’t have prevented September 11 [2001] and there’s another one that’s bound to happen.”

Normal presidential candidates just don’t say things like this. By “normal,” I mean candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton. Let’s not set the bar too high. Granted, George W. Bush was not the most articulate candidate in the world. But what matters is what a candidate reveals when he stumbles. Take this allegedly disastrous “Bushism”: “I know how hard it is to put food on your family.”

The anti-Bush types who buy all those lame-o filler books of the “Bush Dyslexicon” love that one. I’m amazed how often I get it quoted back at me as evidence of what a moron Mr. Bush is. Well, I guess there are two possibilities:

(a) He meant to say “food on your table”.

(b) He was referring to an amusing game he and Jeb like to play at Kennebunkport cookouts when Dad and Mom aren’t looking.

Either way, what’s the difference? Mr. Bush’s goofs never hurt him because they don’t contradict his public persona; indeed, they reinforce it. What do Mr. Clark’s goofs reveal? For example, the bizarre claim he made after September 11, 2001, that “people around the White House” had called him on the day to tell him to go on TV and connect the attack to Saddam.

As the weeks went by, he modified the story, until it emerged that it wasn’t “people,” just one fellow; and he didn’t call on September 11, but afterward; and he wasn’t from the White House at all but from some think-tank in Montreal, which from the look of the map isn’t even in the District of Columbia. And the fellow from Montreal said true, he had called Gen. Clark, but they hadn’t talked about Saddam at all.

Mr. Clark was sold to the Democratic Party as a military man of peaceful manner: Generals are from Mars, but this one’s from Venus. But there’s a common theme to every glimpse of the real Wesley Clark, whether it’s his own private fantasies about the White House calling him on September 11 or memories of those who served with him, like the British general who refused an order by Mr. Clark to launch an insane attack on Russian forces in Kosovo: At best, he’s a thin-skinned, vain, insecure man with a need to insert himself at the center of every story; at worst, he’s a paranoid megalomaniac narcissist.

The defense is that he got in the game late and he’s not a blow-dried pol with all the life focus-grouped out of him. Very true. He’s so new a New Democrat he barely knew any Democrats. But I’m with the Clinton administration on this one: If Wes Clark didn’t have the temperament to be NATO commander in the dozy 1990s, he certainly doesn’t have the temperament to be president in a time of war. “I’m going to take care of the American people. We are not going to have one of these incidents.” He is the incident, waiting to happen. Oh, well. Back to the drawing board.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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