Retired Gen. Wesley Clark

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Wesley Clark
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark
Credit: Reuters Limited © 2003

'Howard Dean for America' campaign button
Clark 2004 campaign button
Credit: From the collection of Ken Rudin, NPR News

Note: Wesley Clark withdrew from the race Feb. 11, 2004.

Dec. 2, 2003 -- NPR's Bob Edwards spoke with retired Gen. Wesley Clark as part of an ongoing Morning Edition series of interviews with each of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Below, NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin provides background on the Clark candidacy.

He's a latecomer in a field of Democrats who have been running, organizing and raising money for over a year. He's a retired general in a party that is not known for supporting military leaders. And he is asking Democrats for their backing, though he himself has been a Democrat for less than three months. These are just some of the roadblocks that Wesley Clark faces in his bid to win his new party's nomination in 2004.

But in the first presidential election in this post-9/11 era, Clark -- the supreme commander of NATO during the 1999 war in Kosovo -- is supremely confident that he will confront the odds and become the first Democrat in memory to win the presidency in his first bid for public office.

At a time when nine others were already seeking the Democratic nod - one, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, has since dropped out - one might think that there was little opportunity or legroom for Clark. But shortly after he declared his candidacy on Sept. 17, he made the cover of Newsweek, began raising a lot of money in a hurry, and jumped to the top of the national polls. Some who were associated with either Bill Clinton or Al Gore -- people like Eli Segal, Mickey Kantor, Mark Fabiani, Chris Lehane, and Ron Klain -- climbed aboard the Clark bandwagon. Many Democrats said he was well-equipped to withstand the inevitable "weak on defense" charge that Republicans would launch, and some expressed the belief that he was the one candidate who could save the party from former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who seemingly had taken the Dems by storm. But Clark had an effect on other candidates as well. No longer was North Carolina Sen. John Edwards the only Democrat from the South (Clark hails from Little Rock, Ark.). No longer was Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry the only Vietnam veteran (Clark was badly wounded in that war).

But before Clark could begin measuring the White House drapes, he became victim to a familiar problem for first-time candidates -- the gaffe. Clark initially said he "probably" would have voted for the 2002 congressional resolution giving authority for President Bush to wage war against Iraq. Given the sizable anti-war sentiment in the party, the remark led to frantic backtracking by his campaign, and Clark revised his remarks by saying that what he really meant was that he would have voted against it. But that wasn't his only problem. A videotape appeared, showing Clark lavishing praise on the "leadership" of President Bush in May 2001. Then we learned he voted for Ronald Reagan twice, not to mention Richard Nixon. And there is no shortage of not-for-attribution comments from Pentagon officials who remain heavily critical of Clark's character and leadership style. (Clark aides sum that up as simple jealousy.)

There is no question that Clark's 34-year military career was impressive. First in his class at West Point, awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star in Vietnam, he helped negotiate the end of the conflict in Bosnia in 1995, and ran a war in the Balkans four years later that did not result in the loss of a single American life. He is intense and aggressive, driven and smart, and always focused. But, according to reports, he is also stubborn and abrasive, overbearing and self-righteous, and no profile of Clark seems complete without these characterizations. He was removed from his NATO post in 1999, after feuding with Defense Secretary Bill Cohen and Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton, and the sniping from those who served with him continues, albeit mostly anonymously. After leaving the military, and before launching his political career, he was an analyst for CNN, where he was a consistent critic of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, which Clark calls a "historic blunder."

If it appears unusual to see a military figure seeking the presidency, it shouldn't; 11 of the 43 presidents were generals. But the last one to do it, Dwight Eisenhower, did so a half-century ago. (Still, compare that to sitting members of Congress: only three have ever been elected president). But nominations are won on a different kind of battlefield, and that's where Clark has many disadvantages. By getting into the race late, he has watched as key party operatives and much early money went to other candidates. Lacking a strong organization in Iowa, he has withdrawn from the Jan. 19 caucuses. His lack of strong party ties has come under attack in the early debates.

Clark faults President Bush for his failure to assemble a real international coalition to take out Saddam Hussein, rather than acting unilaterally. As Clark's campaign matured, he has worked to formulate positions on various domestic issues. He supports abortion rights, affirmative action, the Massachusetts court decision on gay marriage -- positions all in the Democratic Party mainstream. On the other hand, he also supports a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning -- not exactly a party staple.

Like many of the Democratic hopefuls, Clark is hoping that a strong finish in New Hampshire will give him a boost in subsequent primary states. At the moment, his best early state seems to be South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 3. Polls show him running neck-and-neck with Edwards (whose campaign sees S.C. as a "must win"); the Rev. Al Sharpton also is focusing heavily on the state. Clark has picked up much of the campaign apparatus of former candidate Bob Graham and hopes to do well in Florida's primary on March 9 -- assuming the battle for the nomination lasts that long.

Related NPR Stories

more Dec. 22, 2003: Wesley Clark answers questions on Talk of the Nation.

more Dec. 16, 2003: Clark testifies at the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

more Nov. 21, 2003: Jacob Weisberg and Will Saletan of Slate analyze political ads from Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and Wesley Clark.

more Nov. 6, 2003: NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Clark as part of a series of All Things Considered interviews with the Democratic presidential candidates.

more Nov. 3, 2003: A Tavis Smiley Show interview with Clark.

more Oct. 16, 2003: Critics debate Clark's military record.

more Oct. 10, 2003: At a presidential debate in Phoenix, fellow Democrats attack Clark and President Bush.

more Sept. 26, 2003: Clark makes his first appearance at a presidential debate since announcing his candidacy.

more Sept. 24, 2003: NPR's Mara Liasson reports on the early days of Clark's campaign.

more Sept. 24, 2003: On Day to Day, Slate political columnist Will Saletan translates Clark's favorite buzzwords.

more Sept. 20, 2003: Iowa voters show some interest in Clark's candidacy.

more Sept. 20, 2003: New Hamphsire residents weigh Clark's candidacy.

more Sept. 19, 2003: Slate History Lesson columnist David Greenberg considers themes that past generals have used to win the White House.

more Sept. 17, 2003: Clark formally declares his presidential candidacy in Little Rock, Ark.

more Sept. 17, 2003: Joshua Green of The Atlantic Monthly discusses Clark's candidacy on Morning Edition.

more Sept. 15, 2003: NPR's Alex Chadwick speaks to Clark about his possible bid for the White House.

more Sept. 5, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams speaks with Clark as he weighs a decision on running for president.

more Aug. 10, 2003: A groundswell of voters dissatisfied with the Democrats in the presidential race press Clark to run.

more March 25, 2003: Clark gives his analysis of the Pentagon's assessment of Iraq war to date.

more Sept. 27, 2002: Clark is among those interviewed about whether the United States should go to war in Iraq.

more May 25, 2001: Clark discusses Waging Modern War, his memoir about the war in Kosovo.

more May 23, 2001: Clark is interviewed on Fresh Air.

more July 28, 1999: The Pentagon announces Clark's early retirement from the military. Supporters see it as a slap in the face to the general who led NATO to victory in Kosovo.

more More Morning Edition interviews with the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates

Other Resources

  • Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential campaign Web site.