Politics: The Water Walker: The Man: He Is an Elite Soldier-Scholar Who's Made as Many Enemies as He's Defeated in Battle. Can He Lead a Country? the Real Wes Clark

By Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, September 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Politics: The Water Walker: The Man: He Is an Elite Soldier-Scholar Who's Made as Many Enemies as He's Defeated in Battle. Can He Lead a Country? the Real Wes Clark


Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


CORRECTION PUBLISHED 9/30/03:

Due to a design error, we did not name the source for the Sept. 29 graphic "Early Bird Gets the Win" in the article "The Water Walker." The source was "In Pursuit of the White House 2000: How We Choose Our Presidential Nominees," edited by William G. Mayer

_____________________________________________________________________________

Byline: Evan Thomas

Gen. Wesley Clark likes to say that he loved all 34 of his years in the U.S. Army except for two days: the day he was shot (four times) in Vietnam and the day he was fired as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, effectively ending his military career. Both times he was caught by surprise. On patrol in Vietnam, he dropped his rifle (how odd, he thought for an instant; he had never dropped his rifle before) and looked down to see white bone sticking out of his hand where the bullet had struck. The second wound was worse--a stab in the back. As commander of NATO forces, Clark had used an escalating 10-week bombing campaign to force Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to abandon his campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. General Clark had expected to be hailed by his bosses in Washington as a conquering hero--or at least thanked for winning a war at the cost of zero U.S. casualties. Instead, he was dumped for being too independent-minded.

Shocked, humiliated, Clark called Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The two men had become colleagues while negotiating a peace accord in Bosnia in the mid-'90s. Holbrooke, in his own way, tried to cheer up Clark. "Wes," he said, "this is the best thing that could have ever happened to you." "Why?" stammered Clark. "It's awful." Holbrooke replied, "Because no one had ever heard of you until today. I'll help you get a book agent and a speaker's bureau."

Clark's response to getting shot and getting fired was characteristic: he kept on charging, harder than ever. "Get that machine gun up here! Watch the flanks! Get the artillery going! Am engaging!" he had shouted as he lay bleeding on a jungle trail in Vietnam. (Clark was awarded a Silver Star, essentially for continuing to command his troops after getting badly wounded.) After his sacking by the Pentagon, Clark took Holbrooke's advice, wrote a book ("Waging Modern War"), became a commentator for CNN and, before too long, was running for the job of president.

Relentlessness is Clark's greatest virtue, also his greatest flaw. Speaking to a news-week reporter on the night he announced his candidacy, Clark did not want to let go until he was sure the reporter understood him--not just understood him, but respected him, believed him, appreciated him, liked him. Clark quivered with a desire to please. He tapped his feet, jiggled his knee, leaned forward, his bright eyes searching imploringly. "Am I being too theoretical?" he asked. "I want to make sure I answer all your questions," he insisted, two hours into an interview into which he had touched on Plato, the higher calling of the soldier-statesman, the art of persistent diplomacy and, in Clark's view, the many failings of the Bush presidency.

There is a winning, boyish quality to Wesley Clark, and he is unquestionably both driven and brilliant. It is not unusual for old soldiers to become president (11 of 43 have held the rank of general). But the last was Dwight D. Eisenhower a half-century ago, and the modern political process is unforgiving to neophytes, no matter how commanding their presence. Possessed of a defiant need to win, which was born of overcoming childhood insecurities, Clark believes he can take out President George W. Bush on the hustings and do better as commander in chief. Grandiose, yes, but the line between grandiosity and greatness often turns on whether you win.

To say Clark was unpopular among his fellow officers in the military is an understatement. As he rapidly rose through the ranks, he was widely regarded as a champion brown-noser and know-it-all, a sort of Eddie Haskell in Army green. …

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