MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. We begin this hour with politics and the power and pitfalls of words. This past Sunday, retired General Wesley Clark appeared on the CBS program "Face the Nation." General Clark has endorsed Barack Obama for president, but Clark insists that on Sunday, he was speaking as a military expert, not for Senator Obama.
What Clark said about Obama's opponent, John McCain, has gotten him into some hot water. The Obama campaign has officially rejected his remarks. In a moment, we'll hear from Wesley Clark, but first here is the exchange from "Face the Nation," so you can get a sense of the context.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Face the Nation")
General WESLEY CLARK (US Army, Retired): I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has traveled all over the world, but he hasn't held executive responsibility.
That large squadron in the navy that he commanded, it wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not. Do you want to take the risk? What about your reputation? How do we handle it publicly?
He hasn't made those…
Mr. BOB SCHIEFFER (Host, "Face the Nation"): Well, General…
Gen. CLARK: …calls, Bob.
Mr. SCHIEFFER: Well, General, could I just interrupt you?
Gen. CLARK: Sure.
Mr. SCHIEFFER: I have to say Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences, either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean…
Gen. CLARK: Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.
NORRIS: General Wesley Clark there, speaking with Bob Schieffer this past Sunday on the CBS program "Face the Nation." General Clark joins us now. Welcome to the program, sir.
Gen. CLARK: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: It's that very last part of your statement on "Face the Nation" that seems to have kicked up a controversy. Why do you think it's caused such a stir?
Gen. CLARK: Well, I think that it's - first of all, I want to tell you that I totally respect John McCain's service. I honor him. He's been in my home for dinner. I like John McCain. This election is going to be a wartime election. American soldiers are in danger. Our country is at risk abroad, and we need a president who can keep America safe and handle the national security tasks.
So when one candidate like John McCain has had obvious early experience in the armed forces, it's natural then to ask how much does that experience contribute to shaping his judgment, and how good's his judgment now? And my point is, and my point to Bob Schieffer was that those early experiences were at a level where he wasn't really confronting the hard realities that come at the strategic level where the president of the United States has to operate.
NORRIS: You know, it seems that you're changing your tune, though, when it comes to the merits of military service for a presidential candidate. Four years ago, when John Kerry was running for office, this is what you said. You said: John Kerry has heard the thump of enemy mortars. He's seen the flash of the tracers. He's lived the values of service and sacrifice. He proved his physical courage under fire.
You went on to say that John Kerry is a man who, in time of war, can lead us as a warrior. So why is military service a less important qualification now than it was four years ago?
Gen. CLARK: I think that you can always cite a candidate's service in the armed forces as a testimony to his character and his courage, but I don't think early service justifies moving away from looking at a candidate's judgment.
NORRIS: That's not what you were saying about John Kerry, though.
Gen. CLARK: I am saying that about John Kerry. John Kerry's judgment wasn't at issue here. And without having to re-fight the 2004 campaign, what I'd like to say, Michele, is that my statements about John McCain have been taken out of context. I fully respect and honor John McCain as a hero. I respect his character. I respect his courage. I'm simply saying that doesn't necessarily make him the best qualified to be the president.
NORRIS: You know, I don't want to tussle with you on this, but it is curious. I'm having a hard time understanding this because when you yourself were a candidate for president, you touted your own military service. And I seem to remember you saying that that was part of what made you a well-qualified candidate to sit in the Oval Office because…
Gen. CLARK: Because, Michele…
NORRIS: …you lived in battle. You'd made tough decisions. You'd had that experience.
Gen. CLARK: Well, I did lead the armed forces of NATO to a successful military action that saved a million-and-a-half Albanians. I did make the recommendations on targeting. I did go to heads of state and ministers of defense and ministers of foreign affairs, the North Atlantic Council, and helped hold NATO together.
So I not only saw war at the bottom, but I saw war at the top, and I don't want to compare myself to John McCain. I wasn't a prisoner of war. I don't in any way equate what my tour in Vietnam was to his experience there, but I did serve at the strategic level.
John McCain, noble though his service was, didn't serve at that level, didn't have those experiences, and I do believe the experiences that I had were very relevant to what someone could bring to high-level leadership in the United States government.
NORRIS: Now you've couched your criticism in the context on national security. So what national security qualifications does Senator Barack Obama have that Senator John McCain does not, if you were to put them side by side and compare their experiences?
Gen. CLARK: Well, I think it has to do with his appreciation for the place of the United States in the world, the ability to use diplomacy as well as force, and the judgment that he's shown in dealing with national security questions.
He has said that the war in Iraq was a mistake to go into. That proved to be a better judgment than the judgment of Senator McCain. He's also said he would talk to foreign leaders, even if we disagreed with them, and I agree with that.
He said that we should begin a process of taking our troops out of Iraq. I think that's the superior judgment because I think if you look at what will motivate the Iraqis to come together politically, if they will at all, it will be the threat of the American disengagement from Iraq.
So on these matters of judgment, I think, you know, his judgment is proving sound.
NORRIS: General Clark, it's been good to talk to you. Thanks so much for making time for us.
Gen. CLARK: Thank you very much, Michele. It's nice to be with you.
NORRIS: That was General Wesley Clark, speaking to us from Arkansas.