Gen. Wesley Clark has never quite learned how to behave like a politician. Before Christmas, he was asked at a town meeting in Derry, N.H., how he would respond if President Bush or Clark's own Democratic rivals questioned his patriotism or military record. Failing to see that he was being followed by a television camera, he answered, "I'll beat the s--t out of them." Clark's aides later joked that the candidate should have put out an apology, acknowledging that he had misspoken--that what he really meant to say was, "I'll beat the living s--t out of them."
The political professionals who handle Clark are learning that sometimes the best thing to do with the candidate is to let him be himself. After all, Clark's mantra is "I'm a leader, not a politician." If he lacks a seasoned candidate's carefully honed skill to say nothing well and to avoid controversial answers, then so much the better. Not long ago, a Fox News anchor pointedly asked if Clark was putting down U.S. troops by suggesting that Iraq was a "sideshow" to the more vital war on terrorism. Clark angrily lit into the newscaster for "playing politics with the men and women in uniform." Aghast, Clark's media adviser, Chris Lehane, took him aside and warned him that a national politician could not afford to fly off the handle that way, that the general's diatribe had been "too hot" for TV. Then the Clark campaign noted a sudden spike in campaign contributions. Voters apparently liked his righteous outburst.
In a campaign where boldness and "authenticity" may be the Democrats' best, if not only, hope of beating Bush, Clark's amateur standing in the game of politics could be a virtue. Clark is widely reported to be improving on the stump, to be less long-winded and more polished in his answers. With his impressive fourth-quarter fund-raising surge (between $10 million and $11 million), he may have positioned himself to be the Democrats' "Un-Dean." But Clark doubts that he is doing better because of any new-found political skills. Rather, he suggests, people are gradually recognizing his essential worth. "Voters have to learn who you are," he says. "It's a new experience for Democrats to learn about generals."
In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Clark was reluctant to concede that his campaign style had needed much improving. "I was always comfortable," he said. "I had to learn the lingo, but I've never been hesitant to express my views. I've always tried to be crisp and clear." Clark's friends and colleagues have long noted that the general does not willingly admit mistakes. He is still defensive about his first campaign blooper. The day after he announced in September, he told reporters that he would have voted for a congressional resolution backing war in Iraq, then the next day seemed to reverse himself. Clark suggested that he had been trapped into answering a hypothetical question. "I don't have off-the-record conversations," he said, as if unscrupulous newsmen had somehow taken advantage of his virtue.
Clark's aides gingerly observe that their man did require some on-the-job training to catch up to the other candidates, most of whom have been campaigning for at least 20 years. During a debate in Phoenix, Ariz., in October, he was repeatedly cut off by the buzzer before he had answered the question. Instead of moving on when his turn came again, he tried to finish his earlier answer, and fell almost comically behind. At early rallies, Clark would launch into his "hundred-year vision." Voters, more worried about jobs and schools right now, gave him the thousand-yard stare.
Clark has learned to be a little less lofty. This week he will offer up a plan to overhaul and simplify the tax code. But his best role remains soldier-statesman. At a speech in Exeter, N.H., in November, he literally wrapped himself in the flag and called on veterans in the audience to stand with him against the politicos who would question their patriotism. Clark's embrace of flag, faith and family plays very well in Red State America, where the Democrats are hurting. Last week, as he traveled through eight Southern states on a two-day "True Grits Tour," wavin' the flag and droppin' his g's, he seemed exuberant.
Clark is nothing if not relentless. Running for president is "a lot easier, let me tell you," than running a war, says Clark, who was the NATO commander during the 79-day Kosovo war in 1999. "I'm only worrying about losing my voice," says Clark, who for a time in November was reduced to croaking by various throat ailments. By sipping hot water and lemon, he tries to keep his voice "above a six" (on a scale of zero to 10) and to not overtax his vocal cords. But the general, who had to teach himself to walk without a limp after being shot four times in Vietnam, cannot stay quiet for long.