Off Beat: A Candid Candidate

"Are you ready to go?" a pumped Wesley Clark called out to us as he walked quickly through the airport lounge in Little Rock. He had invited three reporters to ride with him on an eight-seat turboprop to Iowa City last Friday. His wide-open media strategy was a calculated risk that revealed both his strengths and his weaknesses that day.

It was 7:30 a.m. and most of us were still bleary-eyed from the night before. We had gotten to sleep well after midnight after a long day with Clark in Florida. We were quickly scanning the newspapers and dreaming of coffee in the lounge when the former general walked his peppy self into the airport. He'd stayed up later than all of us, reading news stories on the Internet. And he'd been up earlier--after just four hours sleep--to do his daily swim and read the papers.

He'd violated the "six-hour rule" that he came up with in the military. At the beginning of a conflict, he forced himself to have "sleep discipline" and go to bed at midnight, because he knew he'd only lose sleep as things went on. When it comes to discipline and athletic ability, General Clark and President George W. Bush have a lot in common. (Instead of a debate maybe they should run time trials).

But the general's attitude about his own press coverage--at least for now--is as different from the president's as can be. Since becoming president, Bush reads the sports pages more than any other section. In the midst of a fierce primary race, Clark not only doesn't have the luxury of ignoring the press, it's not his nature.

As soon as the general sat down on the plane, he started complaining to his press secretary, Mary Jacoby, about his coverage in The New York Times that morning. The headline had highlighted his comment the day before that he "probably" would have voted for a resolution authorizing war against Iraq. He had given reporters a long, freewheeling discussion on the plane. But he felt that the stories lacked the nuance he was trying to convey. "I'm not the antiwar candidate, I'm the pro-success candidate," he said to Jacoby. "It was a gotcha sort of thing." He was not shouting, just intense--a word that describes the trim, wiry general perfectly.

This is just what Jacoby had been worried about. Bringing the press along for the ride is a dicey move. On the one hand, it often gets you more and better coverage. Sen. John McCain mastered that game in the 2000 race. But it also increases your chances of a misstep. Clark had not even had a chance to sit down with Jacoby or his policy aides to talk about the importance of neat, clean answers in a sound-bite-driven media environment. But even if they had, Clark does not seem like one to be handled. He's always been his own spokesman. His first reaction upon reading the stories that morning was to print out copies of all his op-eds on the war that he felt articulated his case and give them to Jacoby.

Micromanaging will be one of the hardest tendencies for Clark to overcome. With a small, strapped organization, it's understandable that he has to do more himself. In Florida last week, he was overheard calling directory assistance himself so he could get NBC's number and call Tim Russert back. "This is General Wes Clark trying to reach Tim Russert," he told the NBC switchboard. He is constantly on his BlackBerry, even messaging reporters personally.

One Arkansas friend, Jerry Jones, tells a story that captures Clark's intensity. Jones was watching his buddy on Aaron Brown's CNN show doing one of his many talking-head appearances during the war. He noticed that Clark's tie was slightly askew. Knowing his friend would have his BlackBerry at the ready, Jones sent a message: "Look over at Aaron Brown's tie." Sure enough, Clark checked his messages during a commercial break. When he went back on the air, his tie was straight and Jones had a message back: "Does it look better now?"

Back on the plane Friday morning, Clark settled down into his book, "The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love." The Matthew Miller book talks about what's wrong with the political process. Clark has some views of his own on the subject. Whatever it is, he assures us, "It's not the media's fault." Despite feeling burned by some the early headlines, Clark seems eager to win over the press. When he came back to speak with us, nothing was off limits--his conversion to Catholicism, his wife, his overcoming a stutter after his father died.

He even admitted that he wasn't sure he'd know how to answer some of the questions that will be fired at him at his first debate Thursday night. "There are prime ministers I don't know, and there are economic facts I don't know, and I'll get stuff wrong," he told us. "Everybody does." That candor will either be the making or unmaking of Candidate Clark.