After early rise, Clark hits plateau in campaign

Retired general struggles with missteps, record

November 03, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As policy director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1995, Wesley K. Clark accompanied President Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, on a trip to try to sell a peace plan for Bosnia to leaders in Europe.

Settling into a small Air Force plane, Clark started to make small talk. "Nice suit," he quipped to Lake.

Lake gestured to Clark's attire -- Army greens adorned with a general's three stars, ribbons and a shoulder combat patch. "I'll trade you," he said.

Clark realized then that he was wearing "the ultimate power suit," as he would later write, describing his uniform as an ensemble "connoting authority and experience and helping its wearer stand out in a crowd."

Clark hung up his fatigues in 2000, when he retired after serving as supreme allied commander in Europe and leading NATO to victory in Kosovo, its first-ever military campaign. Now, as he travels America, Clark is hoping the luster of that career will again help him stand out -- this time in a field of Democrats seeking the presidency -- and bestow on this political newcomer and latecomer an air of trustworthy leadership.

Initially at least, the combination of resume and celebrity -- thanks to his gig as a military analyst for CNN -- proved an appealing formula, vaulting Clark, 58, to the front of the pack in some national polls just after he entered the race last month. He received a big dose of financial aid and attention -- fueled by Internet buzz and by reporters' interest in the newest candidate.

But that standing appears to have hit a plateau, according to polls, and the political rookie has had his share of stumbles. His conflicting remarks about his stance on the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq threatened to derail his candidacy even before he kissed his first baby. And some not-too-distant statements in praise of the Bush administration have raised doubts about the true convictions of a man who announced his bid for the Democratic nomination before he registered with the party.

In addition, a mixed reaction from former military colleagues, including sharp criticism from a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised questions about character and judgment.

As Clark tries to acquaint the public with his views beyond national security, giving speeches on such issues as the economy and health care, voters are trying to see past the uniform he once wore. Many are trying to assess whether the telegenic Rhodes scholar is a product of wishful thinking by Bush's foes or a leader who can bring the same strength of will to boosting the economy and protecting the homeland as he did to stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

"The guy is one of the most extraordinary, talented, thoughtful, balanced leaders I've ever encountered," says a longtime friend, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "But I have no idea how well he'll do."

Certainly, Clark's sterling military credentials -- starting with his place at the top of his West Point class and including service in Vietnam, for which he volunteered and earned the Purple Heart and Silver Star -- are seen as a potent asset at a time of national security fears and a war effort that has lost much public support. He challenges the notion that Democrats are less reliable on foreign affairs and national security.

Last month, Clark's team released his performance evaluations dating to his first year at West Point, all of them wildly glowing, and plans TV spots that will highlight his biography.

That biography -- especially his command of 19 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a 78-day war to stop the killing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic -- lends him a measure of credibility in his attacks on Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

"I learned in the United States Army, in my military career, how to stand up to dictators," he said in the presidential debate Oct. 26. "I put my finger in the chest of a dictator and told him that if he didn't shape up, we'd bomb him. And when he didn't shape up, we did. And he's in The Hague now awaiting trial for war crimes."

Still, a rare commander who won a war but lost his job, Clark earned little favor from top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who relieved him of his job prematurely in 2000, saying, for the record, that he had to get Clark's successor in the job for bureaucratic reasons.

Many who know Clark describe him as brilliant, ambitious and hard-working. But some also regard him as so independent-minded and relentless that he would at times flout the chain of command and cozy up to top civilian leaders to get what he wanted.

"Wes is a guy who will bring down some thunderbolts once he takes the bit in his teeth," says one associate who's worked with Clark over the years.

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