Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2003 / 8 Kislev 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The Clark bandwagon breaks down | What ever happened to Wesley Clark's once promising presidential campaign?

It already begins to feel finished, over, even before the first caucus has been held in Iowa, even before the first vote has been cast in the New Hampshire primary.

It doesn't seem fair, but there it is. When he announced, General Clark led the polls. He looked like just what the country wanted, and needed. But the more he campaigned, the lower he sank.

What happened? Americans were ready for another Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military man who would rise above partisan politics and unite us in troubled and divisive times.

Instead, General Clark joined the partisan clamor, doing and saying pretty much what everybody else in the race for the Democratic nomination was doing and saying. He acquired a staff of clintonoids, listened to the pros, echoed the party line, played the debate game and in general competed with the Howard Deans and John Kerrys at bashing this administration — instead of taking the debate to a whole new, higher, level. Which is what some of us hoped he'd do. We wanted an Eisenhower, and got a McGovern.

What happened? Far from not being enough of a politician, the general turned out to be too much of a politician.

Maybe Wesley Clark's problem is that Ike isn't his only role model. He's also got some of the imperious General MacArthur in him, and even a bit of General Boulanger, the original Man on a White Horse. He was the hero who was going to save France at the tail end of the 19th Century but missed his one chance.

Oh, Ike had his problems, too. A world of them. We just don't remember them very clearly because of the way he surmounted them. When he got into trouble, his first and only concern was how to get out of it. Think of Kasserine Pass, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge . . . one awful blow after another. But Ike wasted no time assigning blame or lashing out at his critics.

Ike used prima donnas like Montgomery and Patton; he was never one himself. He had no time or energy to waste on assigning blame or countering critics or justifying his own actions. Criticism? He ignored it. Rumors and gossip? He wasted no time on them. He rose above them.

But the more General Clark explains why he's never been wrong about a single foreign-policy issue, and tries to straighten out all the inconsistent things he's said on CNN and in this campaign and at Republican rallies before he became a Democrat . . . the lower he sinks in the polls and the angrier he sounds. That's not the kind of leader Americans are looking for just now, or maybe ever.

Wesley Clark has missed his chance — and much more. He's wasted a vast well of good will — and his own exceptional intelligence, competence and energy. There's apparently no virtue a driving ego cannot obscure. Wes Clark is proving one of those sad figures everyone thought would make a great president — till he ran for it. Remember George Romney? Edmund Muskie?

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Many of us have already started thinking of the general as a vice- presidential candidate. But there's room for only one presidential-size ego on a national ticket, and you have to wonder if someone like Howard Dean would risk having him on the ticket. There are times when General Clark would have made Ross Perot's running mate, poor bumbling Admiral Stockdale, sound cogent.

The political pundits speak of the Invisible Primary that occurs the year before the primaries begin. Howard Dean, this year's real George McGovern, already seems to have swept that Invisible Primary as measured by the polls and gut instinct. The signs were unmistakable and unshakable even as Wesley Clark set out on his little bus tour to nowhere in particular.

Another bad sign was Peter Boyer's mercilessly fair portrait of the general in The New Yorker magazine, which is just the kind of venue in which Wesley Clark should shine. Instead, he was quietly, definitively, extensively panned.

In short, Wesley Clark is no Ike. There goes my dream. Though I have to admit it's been going for months now, with every strange rumor the general has retailed, every predictable, party-line stance he's tamely repeated . . . .

I hope General Clark will prove me wrong, awfully wrong, comically wrong, and he'll yet emerge as this year's Eisenhower. But I don't think it's going to happen. What a pity.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Today's column is based on an essay in his book "Entirely Personal." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments by clicking here.

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