Politics: The Water Walker

Gen. Wesley Clark likes to say that he loved all 34 of his years in the U.S. Army except for two days: the day he was shot (four times) in Vietnam and the day he was fired as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, effectively ending his military career. Both times he was caught by surprise. On patrol in Vietnam, he dropped his rifle (how odd, he thought for an instant; he had never dropped his rifle before) and looked down to see white bone sticking out of his hand where the bullet had struck. The second wound was worse--a stab in the back. As commander of NATO forces, Clark had used an escalating 10-week bombing campaign to force Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to abandon his campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. General Clark had expected to be hailed by his bosses in Washington as a conquering hero--or at least thanked for winning a war at the cost of zero U.S. casualties. Instead, he was dumped for being too independent-minded.

Shocked, humiliated, Clark called Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The two men had become colleagues while negotiating a peace accord in Bosnia in the mid-'90s. Holbrooke, in his own way, tried to cheer up Clark. "Wes," he said, "this is the best thing that could have ever happened to you." "Why?" stammered Clark. "It's awful." Holbrooke replied, "Because no one had ever heard of you until today. I'll help you get a book agent and a speaker's bureau."

Clark's response to getting shot and getting fired was characteristic: he kept on charging, harder than ever. "Get that machine gun up here! Watch the flanks! Get the artillery going! Am engaging!" he had shouted as he lay bleeding on a jungle trail in Vietnam. (Clark was awarded a Silver Star, essentially for continuing to command his troops after getting badly wounded.) After his sacking by the Pentagon, Clark took Holbrooke's advice, wrote a book ("Waging Modern War"), became a commentator for CNN and, before too long, was running for the job of president.

Relentlessness is Clark's greatest virtue, also his greatest flaw. Speaking to a news-week reporter on the night he announced his candidacy, Clark did not want to let go until he was sure the reporter understood him--not just understood him, but respected him, believed him, appreciated him, liked him. Clark quivered with a desire to please. He tapped his feet, jiggled his knee, leaned forward, his bright eyes searching imploringly. "Am I being too theoretical?" he asked. "I want to make sure I answer all your questions," he insisted, two hours into an interview into which he had touched on Plato, the higher calling of the soldier-statesman, the art of persistent diplomacy and, in Clark's view, the many failings of the Bush presidency.

There is a winning, boyish quality to Wesley Clark, and he is unquestionably both driven and brilliant. It is not unusual for old soldiers to become president (11 of 43 have held the rank of general). But the last was Dwight D. Eisenhower a half-century ago, and the modern political process is unforgiving to neophytes, no matter how commanding their presence. Possessed of a defiant need to win, which was born of overcoming childhood insecurities, Clark believes he can take out President George W. Bush on the hustings and do better as commander in chief. Grandiose, yes, but the line between grandiosity and greatness often turns on whether you win.

To say Clark was unpopular among his fellow officers in the military is an understatement. As he rapidly rose through the ranks, he was widely regarded as a champion brown-noser and know-it-all, a sort of Eddie Haskell in Army green. In conversation with friends, Colin Powell would privately put down General Clark as "Lieutenant Colonel Clark," i.e., a perpetual eager-beaver wanna-be. Some officers questioned his judgment. Talking to a high-ranking Clinton administration official, Gen. Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who engineered Clark's firing, bluntly referred to Clark as a "nut."

Clark is alternately dismissive, defensive and slightly bewildered by such carping. "I stand up for what I believe is right," he said, uncomfortably, when NEWSWEEK asked him about a Washington Post article crammed with biting, though unattributed, criticism from fellow officers. Yet he knows he has never really fit in with the military culture, which, he notes, prizes "good ole boys" and "jes' plain soldierin' " over Rhodes scholars like Clark. "Water walkers"--a term of both admiration and contempt for military superstars who seem to walk on water--often sink under the weight of jealousy in the Army before they win their first star.

When other veterans like Bob Dole, John Kerry and John McCain declared for the presidency, they were loudly cheered by groups of old war buddies. None of Clark's former comrades in arms showed up last week for his hastily scheduled announcement in Little Rock. Why not? Most soldiers are Republicans, said Clark, who rambled on about how the "military profession shouldn't belong to one party," but the absence of old soldiers in the crowd said more about ties of friendship (or the lack of them) than party affiliation. There is an odd disconnect about Clark: for all his attempts to win over people, one by one if necessary, he seems to have had a tin ear for the norms and conventions of the society around him. His amiability is undercut by contrariness, his sensitivity dulled by self-absorption.

Clark has always been an outsider, even when he was winning all the prizes. Like Winston Churchill and Andrew Jackson, he had a speech impediment as a boy. Clark attributes it to his grief and dislocation at the loss of his father, Benjamin Kanne, who died when Wesley was 4. His mother moved from Chicago to Little Rock, and hid Wes's Jewish roots from him. (Clark took his stepfather's last name; raised as a Baptist, he converted to Roman Catholicism in Vietnam.) As the "poorest boy in a rich man's neighborhood," Clark did not fit in. "I had a Chicago accent and when we played Civil War games, I was a Yankee. Down here, the Yankees always lost," said Clark. But he was always the brightest boy, and when he won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1962, he was first in his class as a plebe. He stayed at the top of his class for most of his time at West Point. He witnessed and memorized Gen. Douglas MacArthur's farewell address ("The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country") and imbibed some of MacArthur's grandiosity. Clark was taught to see himself, he told NEWSWEEK, as one of "Plato's Men of Silver," a special breed of guardian, a "loyal, courageous, dutiful warrior."

He was courageous all right. Shot in the shoulder, hip, hand and leg in Vietnam, he rebuilt himself in a year of painful rehab. At 57, he is buff and wiry from swimming an hour a day. (Novelist John Le Carre based the American general in "The Tailor of Panama" on Clark, whom he had met while Clark was U.S. Southern Commander based in the Canal Zone: "The General was fat-free and had the figure of an athletic god," wrote Le Carre.) Throughout his career, Clark stayed at the top of his class: No. 1 at Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, as a White House Fellow under President Gerald Ford and as the youngest brigadier general at the time at the age of 43. But his obsessiveness wore out his colleagues. "In the military, they said that after talking to Clark for an hour, you had to take a Valium," said a former top official in the Clinton administration. Clark has a tendency to overanalyze and "worry problems to death," said a colleague. And he lacked good political fingertips. Diplomats and senior soldiers alike cringed in 1994 when Clark, meeting Serbian Gen. Ratko Mladic, cheerfully agreed to swap caps and pose for photographers. Mladic, who was visibly hung over at the time, had been burning mosques and vigorously engaging in ethnic cleansing and would soon be indicted as a war criminal. (Chagrined, Clark would later apologize.)

Clark seems to believe he can persuade anyone to do anything, given enough time to make his case. In his interview with NEWSWEEK, he vigorously argued that to win the war on terror, President Bush should be concentrating on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, not Iraq. "You have to persuade [Pakistan President Pervez] Musharraf to shut down the religious schools," he said, "and get the Saudis to secularize." But what if these deeply Islamic countries don't want to secularize? "You've got to work the issues," said Clark, in an urgent, confident tone that suggested that he could bring around the most stubborn imam. Clark can become worked up making a point and sometimes resorts to mimicry. He imitated a Bush official's crude approach to power: "We unleashed force! We hit the Arabs! Clinton was a pussy!" Hearing himself, he hastily added, "It's the way they think."

Clark is no dove himself. He is an activist and an interventionist. As the general in charge of planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the mid-'90s, he had argued, in vain, to send U.S. troops into Africa to stop the genocide in Rwanda. As chief of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe during the 1999 Balkan war, he pushed to send ground troops into Kosovo. Neither President Bill Clinton nor the top brass at the Pentagon had any stomach to see body bags come home. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Dennis Reimer, resisted Clark's urging to use Apache helicopters against the Serbs. The large, low-flying craft were too vulnerable to shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, Reimer insisted. When Clark persisted by talking to reporters and trying to run a back channel to the White House and State Department, Defense Secretary William Cohen was furious. General Shelton, chairman of the JCS, delivered Cohen's message to Clark: "Get your f---ing face off of TV."

The firing of Clark was an act of vicious bureaucratic jujitsu. In the summer of 1999, when Clark was still basking in the glow of victory in Kosovo, General Shelton abruptly informed him that he was being relieved of command--ostensibly to make room for Gen. Joseph Ralston, a favored four-star whose political rise had been stunted by a long-ago scandalous romantic liaison. Knowing that Clark would instantly try to appeal right up to the Oval Office, the Pentagon brass leaked the story to The Washington Post and made sure that top officials were "unavailable" when Clark began frantically calling in the middle of the night.

It was a shabby way to get rid of Clark, who had skillfully fought a difficult two-front war--against the Serbs and his own superiors in Washington. For the most part, Clark's tireless diplomacy had worked to bring together the 19 NATO countries over Kosovo. But Clark's battles, especially with his own commanders, were often strident and messy and too public, conducted over a videoconferencing system with a wide audience (that leaked to reporters). And Clark overreached at least once. When Russian troops seized a Serbian airfield at the end of the war, Clark ordered a British general, Mike Jackson, to take the airfield away from them so Russian planes would not be able to land. "I'm not going to start World War III for you," the British general replied.

Clark's boldness explains some of the animus against him; the Pentagon top brass has become very risk-averse since the Vietnam War. The way to get ahead in the modern military is to avoid taking casualties, not by damning the torpedoes and going full speed ahead. (Indeed, Clark has some qualities in common with Bush's Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who is constantly pushing his generals to take greater risks.) Clark also suffers from the anti-intellectualism of the military. At West Point, "star men" like Clark, who won stars for top grades, often declined to wear them on their cadet uniforms. They didn't want to be singled out as nerds. Clark was a top debater at West Point. One of his superiors--a captain by the name of Norman Schwarzkopf, later the commander of Desert Storm--objected to Clark's spending too much time traveling to debates, doing "puffy stuff," Schwarzkopf complained, rather than more manly pursuits, like "socializing" and "professional development."

Some of the resentment against Clark is just plain jealousy. More-plodding officers dislike "fast burners" like Clark. It should be noted that Clark commanded the loyalty of many of his subordinates as an officer in the field in the '70s and '80s. By the sheer force of his personality and high expectations, he was able to turn around Army units that had drug problems, poor morale and racial divisions.

In his interview with NEWSWEEK, Clark lamented what he called the loss of the "soldier, statesman, scholar" tradition in the Army. "That wobbled after Vietnam," he said. Eisenhower is Clark's hero; as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, Clark was proud to occupy the same chateau in Belgium as Ike and sit at his desk. In a somewhat rueful tone, however, he spoke enviously of Eisenhower's knack for getting on easily with others.

But if popularity doesn't come naturally to Clark, well then, he'll just have to learn how to be more popular. He has already taught himself how to listen respectfully, first as a debater at West Point, later in his somewhat tense and often arduous dealings with foreign diplomats. His mission now will be to learn to go with the flow in the rough and tumble of a political campaign. No doubt Clark has the physical stamina. He fought the Balkan war on about two hours of sleep a night. Whether he can stand the indignities and personal mudslinging is less sure.

Watching Clark move around on the first night of his presidential campaign, dealing with sometimes annoying and pushy reporters and photographers, was revealing about his struggle to adapt. Clark likes order and discipline. He converted to Catholicism, he told NEWSWEEK, in part because he was drawn to the highly structured certainties of the Catholic Church in the tumultuous late '60s. A political campaign, by contrast, is a temple to chaos and unruliness.

Standing in the parking lot outside his modest office in Little Rock, Clark posed, looking a bit awkward, for a portrait photograph. He stood ramrod straight, chest out, smile fixed, and suddenly decided that his well-tailored suit looked too lumpy and mussed. He began emptying his pockets of wallet, pager and cell phone, and asked, "You're going to make me look sloppy?" He confessed a military fashion secret: at the Pentagon, when a general is photographed for his formal portrait, hidden strips of tape are used to smooth his uniform of any wrinkles. Clark suddenly eyed a reporter writing this down. "Oh c'mon, don't use that," he said. Then he sighed, resigned to his fate in a world where very little is off the record.

In fact, in a ginger step toward living in this strange new world, Clark joked about his fastidious military bearing. At the end of a brutal day that began at 5 a.m., Clark had just wound up an interview with CNN when the host, Aaron Brown, casually asked Clark what was next. "I have to go to a couple of more meetings," said Clark. He paused and dryly added, "Then I think I'll go shine my shoes."

Join the Discussion