Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Stars Fall

New York City had a passionate fling with a soldier—but he didn’t look as good in the cold, gray dawn.

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.