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07/30/2003 Entry: "Gene Lyons, July 30, 2003"

"He didn't finish the thought, but he did say 'the ultimate consideration for anyone running for president against George Bush [is] "how much pain you can bear."' My hope is that watching this administration of country club toughs stonewall a proper 9/11 investigation, deceive the American people about a non-existent Iraqi nuclear threat, then alibi that it's not Junior's fault because the president and his national security advisor failed to read the 'National Intelligence Estimate,' will convince Clark that his country needs him again."
Getting to Know the General, Gene Lyons, July 30, 2003


Gene Lyons July 30, 2003

Getting to Know the General

In a recent column urging Gen. Wesley Clark to run for president, I mentioned a friend who questioned his political skills. Because Clark failed to recognize her after a couple of meetings as David Pryor or Bill Clinton would have, she suspected he lacked the personal charm to which Arkansas voters respond. After it appeared, I got a call from a book publicist who'd helped Clark with his book Waging Modern War.

At every appearance, she said, many in the audience were veterans who'd served under Clark during his three decades as an Army officer. The general, she said, recognized every single one, greeting them by name. She'd never seen him hesitate.

Given that Clark's willpower and ambition have been recognized since he graduated first in his West Point class in 1966, this struck me as a telling anecdote. Not every military hero earns the affection and respect of his men. I had two uncles who served as infantry grunts under Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Phillipines and in Korea. They thought him a vainglorious megalomaniac who'd sacrificed soldier's lives to win medals for himself--not necessarily history's judgement, but theirs.

Interestingly, it's a theme Clark himself discussed with the authors of two recent magazine profiles, by Tom Junod in the current Esquire (esquire.com/features/articles/2003/030801 mfe clark 1.html) and Duncan Murrell in the May/June Oxford American. Both are worth looking up for anybody intrigued with the idea of a Clark candidacy.

Clark told Murrell that Americans' current tendency to lionize the military is partly due to post-9/11 fear, partly to lack of experience with the real thing. "We've been the beneficiaries of that lack of familiarity," he said, sentimentalizing soldiers as patriotic icons without feeling the necessity of serving. One result, as Murrell writes, is politicians who feel free "to use the military as a symbol, sending soldiers off to wars that don't affect most American families directly by putting their children in harm's way."

Hence the popularity of a manifest fraud like President Junior--who used his father's political connections to secure a cushy spot in the Texas Air National Guard, got himself grounded after finishing flight school, and appears never to have showed up in Alabama to complete his commitment--swaggering across an aircraft carrier deck in a flightsuit with "Commander in Chief" emblazoned on the front. An earlier generation would have laughed, but millions who resented Bill Clinton's artfully sidestepping Vietnam are thrilled by George W. Bush's "Top Gun" theatrics.

Now hear Clark, who despite being one of the first West Point cadets to ask "Why are we in Vietnam?" his instructors say, earned a Purple Heart and the Silver Star in combat there: "I think a time like this is an interesting point in American history. Many of the things that we've taken for granted, that have shaped our international strategy, our domestic environment--they're up for grabs right now. We got walloped on 9/11, and now Americans are asking themselves what's out there. They're saying 'Hey! Man, these people are supposed to like us! And what happened with Russia and the Soviet Union? Where is China?' Ordinary Americans are now much more interested in the world beyond. And in combination with the war on terror, you've got a sort of rollback to a sort of imperial presidency., a presidency that's much more private, and an investigatory service with greater authority to come after ordinary Americans. We thought we put that to rest after the excesses of the Nixon administration and Vietnam. I believed that when I fought in Vietnam I represented the right of all Americansto express their views. So I'm concerned."

As a CNN military analyst, Clark opposed the rush to substitute Saddam Hussein for Osama bin Laden as Public Enemy #1. Like many Army generals, he thought U.S. forces much too light on the ground--fearing precisely the chaos that's enveloped Iraq since Baghdad fell.The Bush administration, he warned in April, had "gloated much too soon."

The great theme of the post-Vietnam military reforms that transformed the U.S. Army, he explained to Esquire, was personal accountability. "In the Navy, when a ship runs aground," he said "the commanding officer is relieved of duty, no matter what the reason. Now, I'm not saying we ought to hold politicians to that standard, but still..."

He didn't finish the thought, but he did say "the ultimate consideration for anyone running for president against George Bush [is] 'how much pain you can bear.'" My hope is that watching this administration of country club toughs stonewall a proper 9/11 investigation, deceive the American people about a non-existent Iraqi nuclear threat, then alibi that it's not Junior's fault because the president and his national security advisor failed to read the "National Intelligence Estimate," will convince Clark that his country needs him again.

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