Does Gen. Clark Have the Hunger?
   by Gene Lyons

Contrary to last week's column, Gen.Wesley Clark says the Bush White House
did not urge him on 9/11 to blame the terrorist attacks upon Saddam Hussein.
Clarifying his June 15 remarks on "Meet the Press," Clark phoned to emphasize
that he'd gotten calls from persons he knew to be familiar with White House thinking,
but no direct contact nor overt pressure. He remains firm, however, in his view that
the administration has shown no persuasive evidence that a connection between
Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda ever existed.

Needless to say, Clark declined an opportunity to announce his presidential candidacy
to an obscure columnist in a Double-A town. But I wish he'd announce it to somebody,
because the nation has rarely needed a man like him so badly. There's no telling how
long it would take the United States to recover from eight years of President Junior's
unique blend of save-the-millionaires fiscal irresponsibility and his foreign policy of
corporate utopianism masquerading as conservatism.

By a man like Gen. Clark, I mean an individual who combines the military virtues of
duty, honor, courage and self-discipline with a strong sense of history and respect for
democratic values. Also, very frankly, as a symbolic figure whose life history and
personal demeanor could help Democrats put the ghosts of Vietnam and Woodstock
behind them. Not to mention the undisciplined, priapic part of Bill Clinton's legacy.

Like Clinton, Clark was a brilliant student. A graduate of Little Rock's Hall High,
who was first in his class at West Point and a Rhodes Scholar, he went on to become
a highly-decorated Vietnam combat veteran and rose to become NATO Supreme
Commander, successfully running the NATO campaign in Kosovo. The job required
diplomatic and executive skills Bush, for all his political cunning, simply lacks.

Were Clark to run, I think he'd be seen more as a representative of the U.S. Army
than as an Arkansan, although being a Southerner obviously wouldn't hurt. The wounds
of Vietnam having healed, many Americans see in today's Army, and in figures like
Colin Powell, Wesley Clark and Gen. Tommy Franks, an institution that's become
more of a genuine meritocracy than the society that sponsors it. No way a
back-slapping party animal like Junior gets four stars.

Judging by the calls and e-mails I get from all over, Clark would have an excellent
shot at the Democratic nomination. His appearances as an expert military commentator
on CNN have won him a following among Democrats and independents who still feel
betrayed over the 2000 election, sick of having their patriotism maligned by blowhard
country singers, standup comics and Fox News bloviators, and eager to do a little
flag waving of their own.

People want to know if he's running, and if he's the real deal.There's evena fellow in
Maine who's eager to give Clark advice about his dreadful neckties. (His opinion,
not mine. I'm the world's least-qualified necktie expert. OK, maybe Sammy Sosa
has worse taste, possibly Jerry Springer.)

In person, I tell them from limited experience, Clark makes a strong impression:
guarded but affable, his formidable intelligence and self-confidence always apparent,
yet held in reserve. Four star generals are rarely renowned for modesty, but Clark
seems to have no need to make himself the center of attention. He listens, and
seems to say pretty much what he thinks.

At a July 4th gathering last year, for example, I was surprised to hear Clark express
strong reservations about the long term consequences of invading Iraq.  Anybody with
a passing familiarity with the region's history, and Clark has much more than that, had to
worry that overthrowing Iraq's strongman could lead to chaos. But it was Clark's
willingness to say so to people he hardly knew that struck me. Many politicians would
have been more cautious, particularly with a known newspaper columnist present.

Which leads to the question I can't answer. Clark would make a fine president,
but would he make a good candidate? For all his charisma and leadership skills,
has he got the politician's hunger? Would he be willing to devote the next year and
a half of his life to scrounging money, glad-handing strangers and spending more
time in airplanes than his own bed? Giving the same stump speech a thousand times?

One caveat: a woman friend says she's been introduced to Clark three times without
a flicker of recognition. She's not insulted, merely observant. He meets an awful lot of
people. But David Pryor would already have her family history down cold. Bill Clinton
would ask about her high school classmates, and wonder how come she wasn't wearing
that pretty red dress that buttoned down the front. As one who shares Clark's forgetfulness,
I see it as a minor flaw, but it could indicate that the hunger isn't there. We shall see.

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