Clark's Chances

News at Home

Mr. Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the author of SEE HOW THEY RAN: THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE and MR. AND MRS. PRESIDENT: FROM THE TRUMANS TO THE CLINTONS. He is a member of HNN's Advisory Board.

Almost overnight, General Wesley Clark has emerged as the Democratic front-runner. In our age of insta-polls and quicksilver political judgments, Clark is the flavor of the month. Telegenic and articulate, he could be, and has been, an effective television commentator, a Walter Cronkite for the twenty-first century. Calm and courageous, he could be, and has been, a war hero, positioning him as a new age Dwight Eisenhower. In our media-obsessed, and terrorized times, who could ask for anything more?

Of course, with over a year remaining before the poll that counts - the national presidential election - Clark, and his Democratic rivals, will face many media booms and busts. To see if his parachute-jump into the race can become a smooth White House landing, Clark will have to learn how to soar on his own. Right now, his candidacy is floating on three traditional American tropes: the weakness for a candidate in uniform; the yearning for a king-like figure floating about the fray; and the perennial search for salvation.Retired General Wesley Clark

Most media discussions in the last few weeks have concentrated on the fact that American voters have proven themselves suckers for a man in green repeatedly. Despite longstanding fears of losing civilian control over the military, despite the importance of fitting a modern ex-major general who wishes to be president into a well-tailored suit, Americans often have relied on the military as a training school for presidential leadership.

Even today, when Americans doubt so many institutions, many retain great faith in the military. And especially today, when the war against terror demands effective leadership, many would love to deputize a military superhero to hunt down the bad guys and protect hearth and home. Great generals have the qualities we desire in a president - the élan of a George Washington, the determination of an Andrew Jackson, the creativity of a Ulysses S. Grant, the vision of a Dwight Eisenhower. Moreover, many winning generals plunge into politics because they can cash in the fame they earned winning wars and receive the people's favor in return. Thus, William Henry Harrison ran in the 1840 campaign under the slogan of "Tippecanoe and [John] Tyler too," - his nickname being name of his greatest victory. Similarly, Zachary Taylor, who had never voted before 1848, ran as the "Hero of Buena Vista."

Such fame is particularly alluring - and potent -- because it is not political and non-controversial. More than two centuries into their grand republican experiment, Americans still disdain politicians and yearn for a king. Military heroes offer the next best thing. A great general, like a good king, appears blessed with superhuman qualities. The rational side of our beings, and the democratic impulse in our ideology, tells us that these people are not different from anybody else. But our mystical side, our longstanding romantic impulse, prays that they are better. We have had trimmers and prevaricators galore, we often feel. Doesn't a nation so blessed with so much deserve a leader who is not motivated by ambition, who will not simply do what works but do what is right?

Again and again, Americans have been disappointed in their leaders, and have sought deliverance from a new guy. In the nineteenth century, deadlocked conventions often turned to "a dark horse," an outsider, often unknown, who might be able to save the Republic from ruin. In the twentieth century, non-political political candidacies have often succeeded. Dwight Eisenhower's emergence as "the Man from Abilene" offered the classic military promise of salvation. But Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton played the "I'm not a Washington-insider" card most effectively, while Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush played the role of the citizen candidate reluctantly entering the fray, but dreaming of the ranch - despite the fact that both served as governor of a major state, suggesting neither was the political novice many voters chose to believe they were supporting.

Much of this started with George Washington. Washington, lionized for winning the American Revolution, often positioned himself above the political fray - and often spoke of his longing to return to his Mount Vernon farm and sit under his Biblical vine and fig tree. This reluctance - which comported with the republican ideology of the time - reassured Americans and intensified their desire to have Washington save them.

Ultimately, however, such a coquettish mating dance could not work in a robust, growing democracy. Washington's successor as a general-turned-President, Andrew Jackson offered a more aggressive, more substantive, more democratic model of leadership. Yet, he too, was buttressed by his fame as the Hero of New Orleans - the extraneous battle at the end of the War of 1812, which took place a decade-and-a-half before he entered the White House. And Jackson had learned enough from Washington, and from his years as a general and as an American celebrity, to position himself as a larger-than-life figure, whose battles for the American people were not only selfless, but virtuous.

Americans have yet to resolve this symbolic conflict between Washington's republican passivity and Jackson's liberal-democratic intensity - and herein lies ex-General Clark's challenge. Wesley Clark has to fill in the blanks. He has to demonstrate that he is competent to operate in the civilian arena, that he can handle the inquiring press and his sniping rivals. He has to make his candidacy more real, more resonant, more relevant to the needs of today - which will inevitably threaten him with the kinds of controversies and miscues that plague mere mortals. In doing so, in paying obeisance to the demands of the Jacksonian presidency, Clark risks losing the Washingtonesque aura that has set him up as the man to beat.

It is a difficult task - but not an impossible one. Not only have 12 other generals made the move successfully from the command bunker to the White House, but Arnold Schwarzenegger may be parachuting into the California governorship from an even less likely profession. Of course, millions of Americans have witnessed Arnold's "heroics." When Clark rappelled down a mountain trying to save colleagues whose convoy careened off a mountain in Balkans, when he charged up a hill in Vietnam despite being shot four times, no cameras recorded these real heroics. Clark's challenge, then, is to let Americans be seduced by the romance of his life story as a traditional American tale, even as he demonstrates his ability to master the complexities of modern-day America. It is not an easy task. Then again, neither is being a general - or being a president.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Thomas Hagedorn - 10/6/2003

I have followed politics closely for 40 years and worked on various campaigns for about 10 years, at the grass roots level (volunteer). The D's and the R's and the political process are a lot more about winning and a lot less about ideology. If you are a student of the process or a participant, you need to understand that. Both parties (and their candidates) will do whatever is legal (and sometimes illegal) to win. If you want to hold onto your quaint belief that the Democrats are for "the people" go ahead. Myths can be comforting in times of trial.

Voter fraud in the Rio Grande valley and Cook County Illinois in the time periods I referred to is part of the historical record. Those were ugly practices as are the periodic Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout. Politics is very dirty business, as Ah-nold is finding out.

Dave Livingston - 10/6/2003

IMHO Jesse is right on target, "They like soldiers..." To repeat myself, many Americans like soldiers in large part because in many an instance a soldier is the boy next door, whom one has watched grow up, or he is Uncle Joe, who never tires of saying that some of the best days of his lie, &/or worst, were his days soldiering. Or this is so in most of America, exclusive of Academia.

Dave Livingston - 10/6/2003

Professor Troy states, but it comes across as nearly a question, "Why do thry?" in the 1st sentence, 4th paragraph, "...Americans doubt so manty institutions, many retain great faith in the military."

Among the reasons Americans tend to trust the armed forces are, save perhaps in the halls of academia in not most at least a large percentage of American families in one generation or another have had someone of the family serve in the armed forces since 1916. It tends to cause one to be trusting in an instistution in which dear old uncle Fred says in which some of the &/or worst dsys of his life were spent. Even with our current all volunteer AArmy ours remains by & large citizen's Army rather one that is a separate caste.

Regardless the politically correct lying propaganda to the contrary so common duruing and following the Viet-Nam War racial minorities did not comprise a large percentage of the G.I.s who fought in Indochina, nor did they comprise a substantial proportion of the G.I.s who served in units prone to be in close contact with the enemy, nor, likewise, a substantial proportion of the G.I.s who were KIA & WIA.

In fact, according to "VFW Magazine," edition of March, 1993 88.4% of the men who actually sertved in Viet-Nam were Caucassin, including Hispanics. 86.8% of the men KiA in Viet-Nam were Caucasian, including Hispanics. Of the 2,594,000 G.I.s who actually served in-country only 170,000 were Hispanic, of whom 3,070, 6.2% died there. "Overall, blacks suffered 12.5% of the deaths in Vietnam at a time when the percentage of blacks of military age was 13.6% of the total population."

There are those with a racist agenda who state minorities took most of the casualities. For instance, recently a Hispanic activist was quoted in our paper to say Hispanics took 15% of the casualities in 'Nam--an outrageous lie.

The point is, when it is the boy next door, whom you've watched grow up, who is in uniform it is difficult to think of d soldiers as vicious brutes. They generally are not in fact.

When Reserve &/or National Guard units are activated they are in part composed of the fellows who were one's town's cops, firemen and emergency medics. One finds it difficult to distrust those with in uniform whom one has lived and worked most of one's life. Or at least that is so in the normal civiliamn world, for all Academia may be different.

George OIlwell - 10/5/2003

Did you mean to make such sweeping (fact-free) statements and claims about rigging elections?

That said; why do you think the GOP prefers lower turnout at the polls? What does that say about their political ideology?

Josh Greenland - 10/5/2003

"Democratic presidents have shown no qualms in the recent past about using the military, albeit in a "humanitarian" guise that succors the left wing of the party."

Maybe the sorta liberals, but not the left wing. I remember news coverage of a pro-Clinton demonstration during zippergate and the time around the impeachment which on sudden news of Clinton pulling some warfare move turned into an anti-Clinton demonstration.

Thomas Hagedorn - 10/4/2003

Democrats are probably bigger abusers of the electoral process than Republicans. An example would be all the convicted felons, illegal voters in Florida, who voted anyway on the 2000 election. Another example would be all the illegal aliens who voted in the 90's Congressional election that threw "B-52 Bob Dornan" out of Congress. And lastly, the delicious irony of the election in 2000 that stole the Senate seat from Ashcroft in Missouri. Massive voter fraud was involved in St. Louis, abetted by a federal judge. (I'll bet Democrats wish he had won, now!)

Let's be honest. Democrats want big voter turnouts and Republicans don't. Both parties have large amounts of what is called "walking around money" - cash that is spent on election day for supposedly legal expenses. Much of the Democrat cash is lavished on black ministers and others who "distribute" it. There is a very good liklihood that the money is used to illegally buy votes. Since cash is used, it is very hard to prove.

Then you have the whole other problem of illegal aliens, mostly Mexicans, voting in place of a legal voter with an identical name. It happens in huge numbers. It has been happening for at least 60 years in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Lyndon Johnson got bit by it once and later used it to his advantage. And without Texas and Illinois voter fraud in 1960, JFK would never have been President.

Election fraud? You are right to be concerned, but it is a two-way street.

Jesse Lamovsky - 10/4/2003

Mr. Williams,

It's probably a bit more accurate to describe the potential delegates as "anti-Iraq war" more than anti-military, per se. Democratic presidents have shown no qualms in the recent past about using the military, albeit in a "humanitarian" guise that succors the left wing of the party.

That having been said, the candidates who signed on to Bush's adventure stand no chance of garnering the nomination. Kucinich, Sharpton, and Moseley-Braun aren't viable candidates. That pretty much leaves it a two man horserace between Howard Dean and the Hero of Kosovo.

Don't think Hillary is a viable candidate, ever. There's a solid base of people out here in the hinterlands who simply don't like her.

George OIlwell - 10/3/2003

Thank you for providing the quote which proves that General Clark was not questioning the speed of light.

The rigged voters you are concerned about are busily cheering for the big brother of Commander Bunnypants out in Cali- fornyuh. (the drugNaziwomangroperClintonlikeliar with an IQ of 72).

Elia Markell - 10/2/2003

Wes never questioned the speed of light? Want to explain this, then:

"I still believe in e=mc2, but I can't believe that in all of human history, we'll never ever be able to go beyond the speed of light to reach where we want to go," said Clark. "I happen to believe that mankind can do it."

Oh, and also, as a wanna-be-sychophant, I am more concerned about rigged voters by far than rigged voting machines.

Glenn Williams - 10/2/2003

I believe Clark will have a tough go at the Democratic nomination. While he is probably pretty acceptable to the general electorate, the left wing of the party that controls the nomination process is pretty anti-military. I would think he serves a more useful purpose as a potential vice presidential candidate to a Dean or H. Clinton, in order to balance their leftist images with the general public. Despite of what he had said since getting into the race, my perception is that Clark is too conservative for the party he has hitched himself to, but had no option since the Republicans already have a strong candidate. It will be interesting to see the Clark as VP strategy is used in the general election for a Clinton or Dean candidacy, since those who would otherwise be drawn to vote for Clark are already predisposed to vote for Bush.

James Thornton - 10/2/2003

My apologies.

george oilwell - 10/1/2003

What in the world is OIF? It must really be long for you to not have the energy to write it out, so what is it you're trying to say?
"in the run-up to OIF" ??

James Thornton - 10/1/2003

What most people fail to remember is that most Generals make poor Presidents, but if Clark does get the nomination I think the media will run with that story. I read or heard somewhere before that the reason for this is that General/Presidents are used to issuing orders and attempt to do so with Congress. That in turn results in a dismal record of achievement. The exception to this was Washington and Eisenhower. Washington actually did very little during his two terms. His greatest accomplishments were suppressing the Whiskey and Shay rebellions and leaving office. Eisenhower, who gained political skill during the Second World War by balancing the sensitivities of the British and Soviets against war aims, used his skills to work with Congress. (His cutting of Patton's fuel to help Montgomery break out of Belgium may have lengthened the war by as much as six months.) Most don't realize that America's first Civil Rights legislation, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, were products of the Eisenhower Administration, not Democrats JFK and LBJ.
Turning now to the more prepondent example of General/President failures, we see that for the most part General/Presidents fought with Congress and made very poor decisions. Jackson used the veto more than any previous president, and also appointed Roger B. Taney et al to the Supreme Court that contributed to the start of the Civil War with the infamous Dredd Scott case. Harrison died with less than a year in office so he gets a pass, but the Grant Administration was rife with corruption. The fiscal policies of both Jackson (opposition to national bank) and Grant (gold speculation) led to economic recession.

The fact that many other Presidents served in the Civil War but did not command theater of operations run on their war record (Harrison, Garfield, Taft, Arthur), and the euphoria with Teddy Roosevelt (Congressional Medal of Honor-War with Spain) may illustrate that American voters prefer soldiers to generals. In more recent modern times Truman (Army, WW1), Kennedy (Navy, WW2), Johnson (Navy, WW2), Nixon (Navy, WW2), Ford(Navy WW2), Carter (Navy, Cold War), and Bush 41 (Navy, WW2) all served in the military. Kennedy, Johnson and Bush were all also decorated combat veterans. Regardless the party from which a general seeks the Presidency, the American public should closely scrutinize the individual's ability to lead from consensus rather than dictate. Colin Powell may be an exception because of his experience as Secretary of State, but the diplomatic failings of the United States in the run-up to OIF may damage his candidacy should he ever run. Also, physical courage does not neccesarily equate to political courage. Had Grant fired "loyal" subordinates engaged in vice, his record as a President would not be so tarnished. Think twice America before voting for Wesley Clark or any general for that matter.

Jesse Lamovsky - 10/1/2003

"Washington, lionized for winning the American Revolution, often positioned himself above the political fray - and often spoke of his longing to return to his Mount Vernon farm and sit under his Biblical vine and fig tree."

It should be pointed out that the military men who have won Presidential elections have had voter appeal based not only on martial expertise, but on perceived "everyman" qualities. Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower derived a great deal of their popularity from the plain-spoken, rough-hewn qualities of their being. The real Napoleonic military men- McClellan, MacArthur, Winfield Scott Hancock- found the going rough with Presidential voters. American voters don't like generals- they like soldiers.

NYGuy - 9/30/2003

Oilwell-Post 1.
Clark's biggest problem (if he gets the nomination),” might well” be a rigged election.

Oilwell-Post 2
Clark's biggest problem (if he gets the nomination) “is a rigged election.” Diebold and other voting machine co's have deep ties to the Republican Party (there may well be an exception I'm unaware of), and Beverly Harris has done extensive work which shows how relatively easy it would be to "fix" the 2004 election.

Oilwell-Post 2
I'm sorry to learn that you aren't concerned about "rigged voting devices".


Interesting progression. In post one, it “might well be a rigged election.”

In post two the problem is “a rigged election. Why?

1 Diebold and other voting machine co’s have deep ties to the Republicans Republiccan Party.
2. Some one named Beverly Harris shows how easy it would be to “fix” the 2004 election.

No proof but speculation. And the dumb democrats haven’t learned from the last Presidential election and don’t know what is going on. No wonder no one trusts them when they are so dumb.

Post 3. “I’m sorry to learn you aren’t concerned about rigged voting devices.

Shhh. Keep you mouth shut, someone might hear you. You don’t want to wake up the stupid democrats do you.

George Oilwell - 9/30/2003

Maybe another time, Elia.

If you had read the article cited by Drudge, you would know that Clark never questioned the speed of light as a limit.

I'm sorry to learn that you aren't concerned about rigged voting devices. Are you a rich right-winger, or just a wanna-be sycophant?

Elia Markell - 9/30/2003

Given that Clark now questions the speed of light as a limit, pehaps he can slip through a worm hole and observe the election for us all ahead of time. A smart lawyer could probably get his court case protesting the results into the pipe well in advance of those results, I would think. Of course, it's possible Diebold et al have the worm holes all blocked. Damn, George, your giving the enemy too many good ideas.

George Oilwell - 9/29/2003

Sorry about the garbled message I posted at 9:21 PM.

What I was trying to say is that, in my opinion, Clark's biggest problem (if he gets the nomination) is a rigged election. Diebold and other voting machine co's have deep ties to the Republican Party (there may well be an exception I'm unaware of), and Beverly Harris has done extensive work which shows how relatively easy it would be to "fix" the 2004 election. Just like many believe happened when Chuck Hagel got 83% of the vote last time around...on voting machines that he has a big financial stake in.

George Oilwell - 9/29/2003

Anyone who isn't concerned about whether the 2004 election will be fair, should be. Clark's biggest problem (if he gets the nomination), might well be a rigged election.