Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


Here's Gene's column for the week!

Gene Lyons
October 29, 2003

The Doctor is In; Pundits Psychoanalyze Clark

Last month, this column predicted that the GOP response to Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential candidacy would be to turn him into the Democratic equivalent of Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the megalomaniacal crackpot in the classic film"Dr. Strangelove." Portraying Clark as mad with ambition appeared to be the only way to deal with his otherwise perfect political resume--first in his class at West Point, Rhodes Scholar, a Purple Heart and Silver Star for valor in Vietnam, NATO Supreme Commander, all that.

Besides, the outlines of the strategy were already visible. It clearly behooves Republicans to take him out now. Clark as the Democratic nominee would make Bush's re-election unlikely. Early profiles by members of what's The Note calls"The Gang of 500" bristled with anonymous quotes from Pentagon detractors depicting Clark as, in Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen's words,"too weird for prime time." Note the TV metaphor. Cohen wondered if"the personal qualities that bothered his [nameless] critics would be intolerable in a president. We like our presidents as we like our morning TV hosts--comfy."

"In an institution filled with ambitious men," wrote Post reporter Lois Romano more recently,"some viewed Clark as over the top, someone who would do or say anything to get ahead-and get his way." Now to a rational mind, accusing a West Point valedictorian, four-star general and presidential candidate of ambition is about as newsworthy as charging a golden retriever with an unseemly zeal for chasing tennis balls.

If the phrase"would do or say anything" sounds familiar, that's because it comes directly out of the GOP playbook. The last Democrat depicted as crazed with ambition was Al Gore, who never figured out how to counter a barrage of false accusations, such as the absurd canard that he claimed he'd"invented the internet," ceaselessly reiterated by Washington pundits taking dictation from the Republican National Committee.

Although unconscious, there's a subtly royalist overtone to such comments. George W. Bush, see, doesn't have to be a striver. No valedictorian he, Bush knows how to play the role of relaxed TV host/president precisely because as a humble, everyday American aristocrat he was born to it. Hence his accomplishments in life needn't make you, the humble voter or journalism major, feel inferior.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, albeit a fine reporter not beloved by the Bush White House, once gave a revealing explanation of the press's visceral antipathy to Gore on CNN's"Reliable Sources." Gore, Milbank said,"has been disliked all along and it was because he gives a sense that he's better than us as reporters. Whereas President Bush probably is sure that he's better than us--he's probably right, but he does not convey that sense. He does not seem to be dripping with contempt when he looks at us, and I think that has something to do with the coverage."

With Bush currently scolding the press for reporting the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq, Milbank may wish to revise his comments. Nevertheless, the importance of sheer, unadulterated envy in the media's eager acceptance of the whisper campaign against Clark almost can't be overstated. Romano's Washington Post profile depicted his response to anonymous detractors as downright pathological.

"In interviews," she wrote, Clark"displayed the outward calm of a man who cannot bear to convey doubt or failure." [my italics] Actually, he sounded more exasperated to me."How do you think I could have succeeded in the military if every-body didn't like me? It's impossible," he said."Do you realize I was the first person promoted to full colonel in my entire year group of 2,000 officers? I was the only one selected. Do you realize that?...Do you realize I was the only one of my West Point class picked to command a brigade when I was picked?...I was the first person picked for brigadier general. You have to balance this out...A lot of people love me."

Now I doubt that Clark volunteered that some people love him without first being told others hate him. (The ellipses are Romano's.) Nevertheless, the doctor was definitely IN at the Washington Post, not to mention at The New Republic, the allegedly"liberal" magazine where one Adam Kushner opined that Clark's response to anonymous slurs made him appear"self-assured to the point of delusion."

Delusion, mind you, a psychiatric term denoting dogged belief in false ideas. Unless Clark made up the facts, it's a callow, ugly smear. The problem is that nobody but Clark himself can deal with it, and preferably on national TV. During a recent Democratic debate, he referred to a rival general's unspecified slurs on his" character and integrity" as sheer"McCarthyism." But he may need to confront symbolism with symbolism and go all Ollie North on them, treating the whispers as an insult to his patriotism, and standing in front of a flag.

Here we go again folks. The all-knowing cool kid Heathers of the Washington press corps are going to attempt to give Wesley Clark the Al Gore treatment.

Isn't it infuriating that there really are idiots out there who really believe all that claptrap about the"liberal media?"

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