Swooning Over a Soldier

If his Miami fans are any indication, Wesley Clark won't have to worry about his past

To the untrained ear, that loud rushing sound in the air last week may have been mistaken for Hurricane Isabel's final gusts swooping past Miami. Listen more closely. It was actually the turbulence created by two massive press corps passing in the night, a whirl of snapping camera shutters and frantic notepad scribbling. One pack of reporters stalked Bennifer, that two-headed celebrity union of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. The other chased Billary, the equally formidable power couple of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or rather they chased Billary's tactical stand-in -- presidential aspirant Wesley Clark, who parachuted into South Florida for his debut campaign appearance.

Both camps were equally dismissive of each other. Clark's chroniclers held themselves up as keepers of the sacred journalistic flame in a debased world, pointing melodramatically to the arrest of People magazine Miami correspondent Don Sider -- widely respected for his Vietnam War photography for Time magazine, now nabbed for trespassing at Affleck's Georgia compound. Going undercover for the scoop on Affleck and Lopez's nuptials was certainly a long way from covering the Tet offensive.

Those on the J.Lo beat, however, sneered right back at the local mob that greeted Clark, wondering just who were the truly starstruck fans. At least Lopez's admirers realized the object of their fascination was a carefully manufactured product. No such awareness surrounded the hundreds who flocked to Clark's September 18 visit to Hollywood's Deli Den. Indeed in the hours preceding Clark's arrival, at least one of his most devoted boosters seemed to be literally hallucinating.

A model major general: Wesley Clark greets his fans inside Hollywood's Deli Den
Colby Katz
A model major general: Wesley Clark greets his fans inside Hollywood's Deli Den

"This isn't my car," Aaron Dickerson stammered to Kulchur over his cell phone, standing dumbfounded in the middle of the Deli Den's parking lot. The 26-year-old behind the Florida for Clark Website -- one of dozens of such national sites feeding the "Draft Clark" movement -- had driven straight from Tallahassee upon hearing that his man had formally announced his presidential bid. Twenty-four hours later, side-by-side with the faithful, Dickerson was still buzzing, but his lack of sleep was beginning to show.

"It's been a hectic couple of days," he explained giddily while on his way to fetch the phone number for Clark's press secretary from his car. Then he stopped short. "This isn't my car," he repeated, as if trying to work out a difficult math theorem. "I mean, these are my keys, but this isn't my car."

Um, Aaron, maybe you should get some rest.

"Not tonight," he laughed. "Maybe by Saturday I'll be able to go to bed, but definitely not tonight!"

It was tough trying to pin down why Dickerson and much of the crowd drawn to the Deli Den were so lightheaded. Certainly it wasn't Clark's actual positions that proved so enticing. On Dickerson's Website, under the section "Clark on the Issues," was the cryptic message: Information Coming Soon. Not that Clark himself had much help to offer. That same day his own official campaign Website's "Issues" page was also blank.

Yes, Clark had already announced he was pro-choice, wanted health insurance for all, and favored repealing President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. But then, so did the nine other Democratic candidates gunning for their party's 2004 presidential nomination.

Instead Clark's appeal seemed based on something less tangible: People, especially disaffected Democrats, love a man in a uniform. If only one would arrive to lambaste President Bush over Iraq and the still-glaring lack of homeland security. Such a man could even continue Bush's exact defense policies, as long as he pronounced the correct buzzwords, spoke of "multilateralism," praised "international alliances," and posed as a warrior-statesman to Bush's cowboy.

Enter retired General Clark, a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, a Purple Heart and Silver Star veteran of fighting in Vietnam, and eventually the commander of NATO forces in the air war to oust Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces from Kosovo -- he appeared to have stepped straight out of a vintage Frank Capra film. To buy into the fantasy, all folks at the Deli Den had to hear was Clark thunder, "What are we doing in Iraq, Mr. President? What are we going to do now that we are there?"

Never mind that Clark criticized Bush's "endless occupation" of Iraq while still rejecting any change of course. As he wrote in his London Times column this past July: "The cost of this mission will be measured in years, tens of billions of dollars, and dozens more soldiers' lives lost. But failure will be more expensive, and a premature pullout will exacerbate regional conflict and undercut the War on Terror." The words are interchangeable with Bush's.

Yet here was a way for even the most diehard peacenik to come to grips with the post-9/11 world and admit that Bush may have a point -- to acknowledge that America is at war with radical Islamists, to concede that there just might be a difference between Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft -- without ever admitting as much out loud.

Even Michael Moore, a staunch Ralph Nader supporter in 2000, had drunk the Kool-Aid. "Michael Moore likes a general? I never thought I'd write those words," the Bowling for Columbine director mused in an open letter. "But desperate times call for desperate measures.... Take the plunge, General Clark!"

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