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

Swooning Over a Soldier

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.

"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!"

Plunge he did. With a mass of outstretched hands trying to touch Clark's shoulders, the Deli Den resembled an Elvis sighting more than a political rally. Electrifying the room, Clark hopped atop a chair and testified that he wasn't so much running for office as heeding the fervent call of his 50,000-strong draft movement. As he'd said on Good Morning America the previous day: "We're very heavily engaged abroad, we're under threat at home, and people are looking for leadership.... Many people have asked me to put my name in the hat, to step forward."

It was left to an ABC reporter to poke around the deli and find the event's actual organizer -- not a grassroots acolyte but one of Bill Clinton's Harlem office staffers who just happened to be "vacationing in Florida."

But you hardly had to play detective to spot Bubba's handiwork. Clark's senior campaign staff, assembled in a matter of days, is practically the Clinton White House-in-exile. Mark Fabiani, a top advisor to Clinton during his impeachment hearings, is Clark's spokesman and PR maven; Clinton commerce secretary Mickey Cantor is onboard, and so are Clinton White House counsel Bruce Lindsey, 1992 campaign chairman Eli Segal, and former aides Josh Lerner, Vanessa Weaver, and Donnie Fowler. Clinton himself has coyly lent his imprimatur without making a formal endorsement, sucking in more key backers and funders every day.

Across the ideological divide, conservative pundits have been practically frothing at the mouth, seeing (as William Safire put it) a Clinton Restoration in the offing, or more conspiratorially, a vice presidential stalking horse for Hillary's own West Wing ambitions.

Clark's Democratic competition hasn't been too thrilled either. If Clark is the inheritor of the Clinton legacy, where does that leave the candidates -- such as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry -- who've been invoking just such an honor for themselves? Two key Kerry staffers have already resigned in the wake of Clark's announcement: One has joined Clark's campaign and the other, a former top Clintonista, is -- drum roll, please -- the business partner of Clark spokesman Fabiani. Moreover Kerry's strategic high ground as the campaign's only combat veteran and the moderate alternative to Howard Dean has suddenly been eclipsed.

At a fundraiser inside South Beach's Rumi nightclub last week, Kerry was trying hard to put the best face on this turnabout. As he worked his way through the room, pressing the flesh with his well-heeled supporters -- an audience heavy on Anglo attorneys -- Kulchur stepped up.

Are you worried that Wesley Clark's poll numbers put him as the new Democratic frontrunner for president?

"I'm not worried at all," Kerry replied confidently. "I've got a stronger campaign than him. There's a lot of media covering him right now, but it's all hype. That'll fade."

Still the general was clearly on his mind. Several minutes later, as he orated from a makeshift stage, Kerry broke from his standard stump speech of Bush-bashing. "Some people ask me about Wesley Clark," he offered, acknowledging that Clark had extensive military experience. But Kerry scoffed at the notion that simply being a general connoted leadership skills. Real leadership was demonstrated when "I took aim at Oliver North" during the Iran-contra hearings, he continued. Clark was merely following orders: "There's not a lot of room for discretion when you're down the line of chain of command and answering to a civilian commander-in-chief."

Actually, there is significant discretion for an army general -- if you're willing to risk a nuclear exchange with the Russians, which is why Clark found himself unceremoniously fired as NATO commander in July 2000. Ironically his termination was supported by many of the Clinton officials now flocking to him.

A look back at Clark's tenure in Kosovo provides a portrait of a soldier who'd be very comfortable among the neoconservative interventionists in the current administration. As Pentagon leaders dragged their heels over any involvement in the splintered Yugoslavia, fearing a quagmire, Clark pressed for 120,000 U.S. troops to invade on the ground, believing air assaults alone would never force Milosevic to surrender. As with his earlier call for U.S. forces to intervene in Rwanda's genocidal bloodbath, Clark was overruled by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Clinton himself -- who felt that post-Somalia, the American people had little stomach for even a single televised casualty, no matter how just the cause.

Undeterred, Clark took to CNN to make his case public, a move that ended with Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling him to "get your fucking face off of TV." It was hardly the last time Shelton's blood pressure would rise. Several months later, as Serbian troops retreated from Kosovo, a small Russian contingent -- ostensibly allied with NATO -- occupied the capital city's airport. Clark ordered British Gen. Mike Jackson to immediately retake the airport with his NATO forces and forcibly prevent more Russian troops from arriving there.

"Sir, I'm not going to start World War III for you," Jackson retorted, adamantly refusing the order, according to subsequent congressional testimony from Shelton. Lest we forget, Wesley Clark -- dubbed Dr. Strangelove by some in the British press -- is supposedly the antidote to Bush's hawkish recklessness. But to the Joint Chiefs it was just such a dangerous attitude that made them demand Clark be fired from the U.S. Army.

Even more glaring, it's unclear if Clark has mellowed since being put out to pasture. In the aftermath of September 11, he headed straight for the Pentagon, expecting that someone with his credentials would be quickly given a job. But the Bush administration didn't trust him any more than Clinton's did. "I would have been a Republican if Karl Rove had returned my phone calls," Clark griped to two prominent GOP figures at a conference last year, as reported by Newsweek. Clark now says that line was a "humorous tweak." And in his 2001 memoir Waging Modern War, he claims Clinton was tricked into firing him, and even told Clark privately: "I had nothing to do with it."

Those two Republicans, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and University of Denver president Marc Holtzman, describe their conversation with the general as anything but humorous. Said Holtzman: "He went into detail about his grievances. Clark wasn't joking. We were really shocked." This on the heels of Clark's admission that he'd voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 -- at the height of the Vietnam War -- and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

None of these comments fazed the eighteen Clark disciples who last week met around a large table at Scotty's Landing in Coconut Grove. Now that their man had committed, their main concern was how to trade in their Draft Clark bumper stickers for new ones that read, Elect Clark. A self-described "former Black Panther" sat next to a onetime presidential page for Nixon; a senior passed a clipboard on to an eager twentysomething -- Wesley Clark had become all things to all people, and they certainly weren't going to let any of the general's own words and actions interfere with that.

"This county could swing the election," declared Carol Smith, the spirited middle-age Miami kindergarten teacher heading the group.

"We've done it before!" echoed one voice.

"Depends who's counting the votes!" quipped another good-naturedly.

A brief drop-in by Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman Ray Zeller only seemed to confirm that they were all on the right track despite the disturbing stories about Clark.

"When you're watching CNN or Fox, you're looking at a Bush-controlled media operation," Zeller said. "Everything's owned by Clear Channel now." Folks only needed to know who Clark had gathered around him: "Who's he got as his team? Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. And you couldn't ask for a better team than that."

After Zeller left, Kulchur jumped in, citing Clark's recent in-depth interviews -- his flip-flops on the war in Iraq, his support for Nixon, his spurned overtures to the Bush White House. But that familiar Deli Den vibe of Elvis Lives! returned.

Those stories weren't true, the table argued back. As Zeller had said, they were merely attack pieces orchestrated by Bush.

Carol Smith explained that she didn't trust any American media anymore. Since the Iraq conflict began, she'd been getting most of her news from the BBC and British newspapers via the Internet. "I feel scared," she said. Every day brought a new horror -- suicide bombers in Israel, bloody ambushes in Baghdad, new whispers of terrorism at home. "I need someone who understands security issues, who understands world affairs. With Clark, I feel secure. "

You don't feel secure with Howard Dean?

A horrified look formed on her face: "Oh, gosh no!"


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