Stars Fall

In Nutfield’s, a small bar in New Hampshire, General Wesley Clark’s campaign for president was already coming undone. The problems could be detected in the smallest encounters—a bar customer giving the general advice, for instance. Clark, of course, was the four-star general, the Southerner, the Rhodes scholar—on paper, he looked terrific—who hadn’t run for elective office since the twelfth grade (when he lost). If only voters could get to know me, the general seemed to feel, and passed grueling days at firehouse pancake breakfasts and country-store drop-ins and candidates’ dinners where people did, in fact, seem open to him. And why not? The general has a broad smile—staffers mentioned his smile as one of his assets, part of his charm. And because he was trim, fit, physically compact, he seemed approachable. The general, for all the imposing titles he’d accumulated—Supreme Allied Commander of NATO was just one—had an unusual effect on people: He seemed to invite each one to give him advice, as if, in his presence, everyone felt himself a sophisticated pol.

Unfortunately, with thudding regularity, people had started to offer the same advice. Clark, once supposed to be Clinton continued, just less complicated, wasn’t much of a politician. For one thing, the general often seemed trapped by questions—it had started in the campaign’s first days with his remark, later retracted, that he would have voted to give the president authority for the war in Iraq. “He never really recovered,” said one insider. Too often, Clark spent days clarifying his positions.

And so, in the bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, an advice-giver—a short man in a down parka—stepped forward to recite advice Clark had already heard time and again. “You have to answer the question you want to answer,” said the man, a supporter. “Don’t answer the one they ask.” Be a better politician, the man seemed to say. The general’s smile flashed—it seemed to have a life of its own. “I know, I know,” he said wearily, as if to say, I always forget.

That so much enthusiasm greeted Clark’s entry into the race—initial polls had him competitive with Bush—seems, in retrospect, slightly nutty. Just as nutty, perhaps, was that so many influential liberal New York Democrats fell in love with a four-star, Arkansas-born general. Two thirds of Clark’s money was raised in New York, by some estimates, and yet who knew from a four-star general? “How many stars are there?” Jon Stewart, speaking for all New Yorkers, had asked. (In response, Clark, earnest and literal, said twelve, apparently counting the stars that appear on the uniform and the hat.) The incongruity wasn’t just that Clark had spent almost his entire adult life in this exotic culture. It was also what the military had made Clark. Lifestyle-wise, he seemed a conservative. Frankly, he seemed almost Republican—indeed, he’d sometimes voted Republican—a person untouched by the social and cultural complications of the past four decades. Kerry, another war hero, had a troubled relationship to Vietnam. (Clark, on the contrary, took lessons from Vietnam to better prosecute the war in Kosovo.) Dean, another Washington outsider, had a fraught relationship with an aggressively independent wife. (Clark had Brooklyn-born Gert, more Laura than Hillary; she’d moved 31 times in 34 years, never working, always supporting his career.) Even George W. Bush, who spoke of family values, admitted having once been “young and irresponsible.” (Clark never even thought to try marijuana. “Never used it,” he said.)

“He’s Mr. Smith,” said his son, referring to the innocent Jimmy Stewart played in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Clark’s son, Wesley Clark II, more New York than his dad—a screenwriter, he’d worked in advertising in New York—said he’d always been that way. Wes II recalled one conversation in particular. Trying to decide whether to stay in the Army, Wes II had approached his father.

“Dad, I don’t believe in it anymore,” he said.

“Then get out. Somebody’s got to do it because they genuinely care. Someone needs to be there who actually believes in the Army,” the general told him.

And yet, despite the cultural divide that separated him from contemporary New Yorkers—from, in fact, much of contemporary culture—Clark was never just an old-fashioned general. Clark was the gentle general, “a dream general for Democrats,” said one campaign staffer. He’d been first in his class at West Point and then a Rhodes scholar. “Very smart” was among everyone’s initial reactions. Seductively, Clark had warrior credentials, yet didn’t seem a warrior—his book on the Kosovo war, which he wrote himself, is an almost bureaucratic account of endless meetings. Rather, he seemed that most New York of things, a superachiever with an exercise habit. (Even during the campaign he swam every morning as early as five.) He had perhaps the greatest résumé to ever hit this town of résumé close readers. His credentials seemed endless: the master’s degree, the four languages he speaks.

“He taught economics,” said New York co–finance chair Stan Shuman, the merchant banker.

“He can talk currencies,” said Alan Patricof, the investment banker. “I was shocked he knew about that.”

New Yorkers—and they weren’t alone—had visions of a Josiah Bartlet general, an extreme multilateralist who could negotiate in Russian or Spanish and also do 50 push-ups—his short, stout campaign chairman, ex–Clinton staffer Eli Segal, had been thrilled to watch him do them. During his campaign, Clark took to telling audiences how, as a kid, he’d built rockets in his backyard and how, in a West Wing–y insight, he’d cleverly switched his fuel base from chlorates to chlorides.

What’s more, Clark the personal conservative had progressive social instincts—the result, no doubt, of all that time spent on the bottom rungs of the middle class. A four-star general earns about as much as a Long Island schoolteacher, and Clark’s son reported that he’d joined ROTC as a way—the only way—he could pay for college. (Clark proposed that every kid get two years of college for free.) Plus, and this was a bonus for New Yorkers, there was this biographical quirk. Wesley K. Clark was part Jewish. The K. stood for Kanne, the name of his Jewish father, who died when Clark was 4.

On paper, it all worked. And so, at the outset, this was the shot: Clark could look like one of them—those who inhabit the cultural no-fly zone between the coasts—but represent us. There was the inconvenience that he was a political novice. But with all that brainpower, he’d be a quick study. As Jamie Rubin, himself a former New Yorker, former Clinton staffer, and an adviser to Clark, said, “He’s a general and he thinks like us. C-o-o-o-l!”

Initially, the match of compelling résumé and ardent constituency had the force of expedience on its side. Six months ago, John Kerry’s campaign was sputtering. Shuman and Patricof, longtime Clinton supporters, were among those desperately interested in an alternative to Howard Dean.

The Clark logic was persuasive. “Clark could take off the table those traditional Republican attacks,” said Patricof, who’d hosted a breakfast for him. Issues like national security, patriotism, family values.

The contrast with the stagy Bush couldn’t have been starker, or more pleasing to Democrats. (“We have been handed a gift,” was how filmmaker Michael Moore put it.) The general was a decorated soldier who hadn’t, as Clark took to saying, “pranced” around in a flight uniform, playing dress-up.

Clark started his campaign late—he was the last candidate in—and so, in a calculated strategy, decided to skip the Iowa caucuses. In New Hampshire, Clark was to be the anti-Dean. But then Howard Dean turned into the anti-Dean. “We had a brilliant strategy until a few days ago,” Segal said shortly after the Iowa caucuses, where the heart-slowing Kerry seemed to get Deanified, infused with anti-Bush passion, and finished first. John Edwards, another Southerner, finished second.

“Unfortunately, it took four days to reorient after Iowa,” said a campaign insider. And the New Hampshire primary was only eight days after Iowa.

Clark eked out third in New Hampshire. The next week, Edwards played the expectations game brilliantly. He said he had to win South Carolina, a state he was confident of winning. His win overshadowed Clark’s slim victory in Oklahoma. A third-place finish in Tennessee finished Clark.

Clark, though, had been hampered from the start. Kerry and Edwards, experienced politicians, consistently threaded political needles, somehow managing to have been at one point for the war in Iraq and now infuriated by it. Clark, though, got entangled. In New Hampshire, the press had already made up its mind. “Not ready for prime time,” said one correspondent. And this, in fact, seemed the subtext of many new stories. What side of the abortion issue was Clark on? And did Clark agree that Bush was a deserter? Michael Moore’s throwaway comment required repeated explanations by Clark. Clark seemed frustrated by his dealings with the media, which he thought more difficult on a political campaign than during the war on Kosovo. “There’s a lot more scrutiny, the media hangs on every word, intonation, and phrase. That was the biggest difficulty.”

The general’s staff had a curious explanation. He was brilliant and wanted to tell you everything he knew, a habit better suited to grad students than politicians. That was probably true, and yet revelatory of the candidate’s true weakness. Geeky Clark—really, he was the geeky general—didn’t connect down.

The firemen went to the patrician Kerry; in New Hampshire, they went to his rallies straight out of bars. Unions flocked to Dean, who’d never been in one. Southerners preferred Edwards, who, after all, has a southern accent. (Clark’s is much fainter.) Somehow the veterans, too, skipped the unimpeachable patriot Clark and rallied to antiwar Kerry. It didn’t help that Clark, in another misstep, took a shot at Kerry. He was, Clark said, merely a lieutenant. The general, it turned out, was a bit of a snob.

Finally, the truth was that Clark’s natural constituency proved too small. His appeal, despite the facts on paper, the résumé, didn’t come from his uniform, his patriotism, his faith. Clark, who was supposed to be a son of the American heartland, was instead most compelling as a representative of the elite, who, more New York than he could know, was to be the darling of the elites.

Stars Fall