General Clark

GENERAL CLARK….I’ve been skeptical about Wesley Clark for a while now, unsure of why he was generating so much buzz even though his policy leanings are close to a blank slate. Somehow, just being a leftish-leaning general didn’t seem like enough to me. So when reader Kevin McCormack recommended Tom Junod’s profile of Clark in this month’s Esquire, I decided to print it out and read it over lunch.

Now, the profile itself, I thought, wasn’t really very good. It’s written in what I’ve come to think of as “glossy magazine standard,” meaning that it’s bright and absorbing and fun ? but after you’re done you realize that you didn’t learn all that much. It’s sort of like a heavily padded term paper, except the padding is done by an extremely talented and experienced pro.

That aside, however, there were a couple of excerpts that I found interesting. First is this one, which is basically why I haven’t taken Clark seriously so far:

They will come at him, of course. Once he announces, they will come after him. General Wesley Clark? Isn’t he the guy on TV? Isn’t he one of those retired generals Rummy talks about? Wasn’t he disliked by his own service? Wasn’t he forced to retire? Wasn’t he a little….reckless over there in Kosovo

That’s exactly what I think will happen, and I have a feeling that Republicans will be able to paint him not as a toughminded former general, but as a general who turned sort of soft and batty and had to put out to pasture. The question is, can Clark overcome that?

The second excerpt has nothing to do with his political chances, but I found it both insightful and refreshing:

Once, the U. S. Army tested a thousand of its officers to see how well they extrapolated future trends from current patterns. The general, long before he was a general, finished first, and now, when he articulates the principles that would inform the creation of his political platform, he does so in terms of “outcomes” five, thirty, and a hundred years in the future. For your five-year outcome, you concentrate on rebuilding the economy. For your optimum thirty-year outcome, education. And for your optimum hundred-year outcome, the entire institutional environment. And you start now.

This isn’t brilliantly original or anything, but it is well put and shows an appreciation of reality, not just partisan slogans. I like that a lot.

I also like the fact that Clark understands the single most important aspect of American culture today: fear. We are afraid of so many things, frequently with little reason, and our media and our politicians feed this fear relentlessly. If Clark is able to meet that head on and run a campaign built on fighting fear instead of giving in to it, he might be able to tap into something truly potent.

Still, I think healthy skepticism is in order. Junod acknowledges the Clark buzz but never really provides a good sense of what causes it and whether it has any sticking power. After all, it’s easy to be enthusiastic about somebody who gives a good speech and hasn’t yet said anything you disagree with, but eventually Clark will have to propose a healthcare plan and a tax plan and a dozen other plans, and each one of them will reduce his support a bit and give his opponents new handles with which to attack him. So for now, I’ll wait and see.

POSTSCRIPT: If you’re wondering what I mean by “glossy magazine standard,” this is it:

Look into his eyes. They’re not eyes so much as scanning devices?not quite predatory, no, but sort of an odd combination of jittery and calm, of patient and imploring, alert and exhausted, set back there in the hollows and shadows of his lean, handsome, deliberate face.

At first, you just skip past this stuff, but when you actually think about it you start to wonder how the hell do they make this stuff up? Seriously, can you imagine yourself ever looking into somebody’s eyes and coming up with that paragraph to describe them? Me neither.