Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2003/ 27 Elul, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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A rubdown can't cure everything | Wesley Clark's most passionate fans think he's too good to be true, and they're probably right.

Now we know where Ross Perot has been for lo, these past few years: hiding out in Little Rock, tutoring the general in how not to succeed in presidential politics even if you try very, very hard.

Mr. Clark sounds like a man having trouble remembering the details of the stories he makes up, like Ross Perot explaining how Barbara Bush, or maybe it was someone who just looked like the Silver Fox, ruined his daughter's wedding reception when she spiked the raspberry punch with one of George's old Top-Siders.

Just when the scribes were getting bored with the fanciful story the general told last summer, that he got a call on September 11 from "people around the White House" to tell him to link Saddam Hussein to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he comes up with another whopper.

This one is that he didn't really want to join the Democrats but the devil — well, Karl Rove — made him do it. He was ready to be a Republican, he told Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado at a conference not long ago in Aspen, but when he called Karl Rove at the White House to give him the good news, Karl never called him back. Four-star generals are not accustomed to being treated like WAC corporals. But the general should have known better: the White House logs every call, and when a reporter asked the White House to check its logs, an obliging clerk could find no trace of the call. Karl Rove doesn't remember ever talking to the general.

Telling fibs and stretchers can get to be a habit. After he told an Arizona radio interviewer that the White House tried to get him bounced from his gig at CNN, critiquing the war in Iraq, nobody at CNN could remember anything like that, either. The old soldier made a hasty, strategic retreat: "I've only heard rumors about it."

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A lot of people touch up their resumes when they go job-hunting. It's not a felony, but it's always risky. Since Mr. Clark had never before run for office, not even for the Student Council at Little Rock's Hall High School back in that other century, he couldn't know how skeptical reporters can be. The resume of the general who looks like a general ought to look does, after all, include authentic good stuff: a West Point ring, a Rhodes scholarship, Vietnam War service, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and finally the adulation of a considerable segment of a desperate Democratic Party moving swiftly into the panic mode.

What's more disturbing to party professionals is what a klutz the general has shown himself to be in his first week in the public eye. As if having studied his famous mentor's infamous double talk on the eve of the first war against Saddam Hussein, Mr. Clark on a Tuesday said he would have voted to authorize the war on Iraq and on Thursday said well, no, he actually wouldn't have done that at all. He first said he wouldn't join this week's debate — why lend his wattage to a morgue full of stiffs when he could fly to Texas and get paid for a speech? Then, on second thought, he said he would. When the Miami Herald asked him what he thought of capital punishment, he offered an endorsement of a moratorium on executions. A few minutes later, he begged to differ with himself: "Stop, stop," he pleaded with the reporter. "I promised myself I wasn't going to take a strong position."

Promises, after all, are made to be broken, even if they're promises you make to yourself. Voters, particularly the easily mesmerized, are usually willing to cut candidates a little early slack. But you're entitled to expect more from hunks named Wesley, and Mr. Clark's first week was not the coming-out party envisioned by Bill and Hillary, who have the most to lose if the general is driven from the field.

The Clintons certainly never expected the general, described by the former president as one of the party's two "stars," to light up the firmament. That's the role of the other star, when, just after Thanksgiving, she rides manfully to the rescue. The general is only expected to be just good enough.

The massage of Democratic hopes and fears over the past week, carefully administered by the master rubdown artist from Hot Springs, where the rubdown is an art as well as a science, has produced the buzz that drowns out even the noise from California. But if Wes Clark can't keep up with expectations better than he did in his first week out, what kind of running mate would he be?

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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