“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.