Home-State Record: Wesley Clark

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(Host) Today in the conclusion to our series on the home-state records of the Democratic presidential candidates we look at General Wesley Clark. He’s never held elective office, never voted on a legislative measure and never signed a bill into law. But Dan Gorenstein of New Hampshire Public Radio, reports on another record: his leadership during thirty years in the military.

(Gorenstein) Some call Wesley Clark a natural-born leader. High school classmate Phillip McMath does. Long before Clark became a four-star general or presidential candidate, McMath witnessed a teenager in command at a Little Rock, Arkansas, high school.

In his junior year, Clark started, coached and captained the swim team at a school that didn’t even want one. McMath knew Clark was organized and focused. But when their three-man team showed up for the four-man relay, McMath was amazed.

(McMath) “When he swam the anchor leg of that relay, he was behind. And he had already been in the water for an event. So there was no way he was supposed to catch those guys who were fresh. He caught them and passed them, we won the event. I was surprised by that, I was flabbergasted.”

(Gorenstein) That’s one of those fabled Wesley Clark moments but these all that unusual for Clark. He graduated first in his West Point class; he was a Rhodes Scholar; he was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star for service in Vietnam. In Kosovo, he oversaw NATO’s first-ever war as the supreme allied commander. That position in particular tested Clark’s political and diplomatic skills.

The general led an army made up of nineteen NATO countries. And sometimes, Clark remembers being blunt with the various members. It’s clearly a type of leadership he enjoys discussing.

(Clark) “There had been some kind of accident, I think a bomb had fallen, near a hospital, injured a couple people. And of course it was in the papers of his country, NATO makes another mistake. And he said to me, ‘how long are we going to have to put up with these mistakes?’ And I said, ‘you are going to have to put up with them as long as we do a bombing campaign. And you’re responsible for this campaign, just like I am, and your government needs to stop criticizing the mistakes, nobody wants to make these mistakes. You need to start building popular support for the program and the purposes of this.’ How did he respond to that? He responded very positively. He went back and their government was more supportive.”

(Gorenstein) Clark says he could get away with tough talk because the representatives were friends and colleagues. People he ate dinner with, discussed books and ideas with. To Clark, that story illustrates communication and leadership.

To his detractors the story illustrates arrogance. More than one general has attacked the Democratic candidate for being determined to get ahead, obstinate when his ideas didn’t work, and abrasive.

Retired Army Brigadier General David Grange worked under Clark in Bosnia and Kosovo. Grange says Clark treated him well, but he also saw people bristle at the general’s style.

(Grange) “When you negotiate, when you try to persuade someone to your course of action, your will, you can just like a car salesman turn people off the way you come on. And you may know more than anyone else on it, and you may have the right answer, and the best deal, but because of the way you come forth, they are turned off.”

(Gorenstein) The way Clark entered the Democratic primary reflects a man who trusts his instincts. Just like that swim meet back in high school, Clark started out behind: no money, no political staff, no experience. Campaign strategists say it’s a revealing moment, especially for someone with a reputation for discipline and organization. Veteran Al Gore advisor Carter Eskew:

(Eskew) “He strikes me as a man who is supremely confident. And perhaps, he thought, ‘well, I don’t have to have this all thought through, because I can wing it as I go. I’ve always managed to do these things without preparation.'”

(Gorenstein) Criticism like this comes as no surprise to Clark. With a sly reference to President Bush, he says his candidacy is his only faith based initiative.

For the Home State Record Project, I’m Dan Gorenstein.

The Home-State Record Project on the Democratic presidential candidates is a production of Vermont Public Radio. The production engineers are: Sam Sanders for the series, and Chris Albertine for “Howard Dean: The Vermont Years.” The production associate is Patti Daniels. Music was performed by Bob Merrill. The executive producer is John Van Hoesen.

Funding for the Home State Record Project is provided by listeners of Vermont Public Radio.

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