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A Fairy Tale

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

Deliver us a white knight, a true and brave soul who can rid us of scoundrels, scalawags and in-it-for-themselves special interests. That’s the cry that periodically arises within American politics, as would-be voters disgusted (rightfully) with business-as-usual politicians call for a non-politician to rescue the system from itself. At the moment, two candidates in the national spotlight are trying to capitalize upon this save-us-from-politics sentiment.

First came Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then, last week, retired Army General Wesley Clark made a late airdrop into the Democratic presidential contest. Clark, who was supreme commander of NATO before being canned in 1999 by Defense Secretary William Cohen, can boast he is the only Democratic contender whose campaign was preceded by an authentic grassroots movement urging him to run. The Draft Clark movement recruited 258 regional coordinators nationwide and operated a Web site that drew more visitors than the site of any of the already-running Democratic candidates, except ex–Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Clark has never sought nor held elective office. He cannot recall precisely who he voted for in years past (but assumes he voted for Ronald Reagan at least once). He only recently declared himself a Democrat. Yet plenty of Democrats — and some independents — see him as their white knight.

White-knight politics has had a bumpy time in recent years. In 1992, millions of Americans in search of political salvation looked to tycoon Ross Perot, who claimed that the country’s sputtering economy could easily be fixed if only experts — not politicians — were drawn together to fashion a solution. He turned out to be a bit too eccentric and erratic, more Don Quixote (or Don Knotts) than Lancelot. But he managed to pull 19 percent of the presidential vote. Then, in 1995, Colin Powell pondered a presidential bid, as admirers across the country pined for an above-the-fray/free-of-politics contender. Powell disappointed his fans but persuaded them to buy his memoirs and became a best-selling author instead. In 1998 in Minnesota, former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, a crash-the-party independent, was surprisingly elected governor. But he was more of a black than a white knight.

Clark’s candidacy may be the best test of white-knightism. He’s neither nutty (like Perot) nor reluctant (like Powell). He has been hailed by anti-Bushies of various ideological inclinations. Populist filmmaker and hero-of-the-left Michael Moore wrote an open letter to Clark pressing him to run. (He praised Clark’s support of affirmative action, gun control, abortion rights, and his opposition to Bush’s tax cuts, the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq.) The investment bankers at the Blackstone Group — not quite a populist outfit — have been squiring the general. Members of the Blue Dog caucus — conservative Democrats in the House — are expected to sign on early. A Moore–Blackstone–Blue Dog alliance? That’s wide appeal.

 

On paper, Clark has come-to-the-rescue qualifications. A victorious general (the war of Kosovo), he has been characterized as a brilliant and visionary leader by military comrades, even those who point out that he is also abrasive, thin-skinned and headstrong. (During the Kosovo campaign, he ordered NATO troops to confront Russian troops; his order was disobeyed by a British general.) But to succeed, Clark cannot depend on a white-knight résumé. He has to perform. And here’s the rub: He has to perform as a politician. Captivate likely Democratic primary voters, cajole contributors, charm the columnists and commentators. None of this is easy to do without appearing like another one of the politicians in the race. And the early signs are mixed as to whether Clark can pull it off.

In interviews, he has tried to strike an outspoken, no-nonsense tone. Asked about gays in the military, he said, “First of all, there are gays in the military. There have always been and everyone knows that. It’s probably time for the armed forces to take another look at it.” Noting that the high cost of war and occupation in Iraq should lead to reversing the Bush tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, he remarked, “I would hope that these would be called ‘the Bush tax hikes.’” But he has also uttered some Perot-ish remarks — for instance, saying he would focus on “context,” not specifics. During his announcement speech in his home state of Arkansas, Clark mainly deployed wooden stock phrases.

Worse, in the days afterward, he stumbled over a central component of his candidacy: his position on the Iraq war. First, he told reporters he “probably” would have supported the congressional resolution that authorized Bush to launch a war on Iraq. The next day, he declared, “Let’s make one thing real clear: I would never have voted for this war.” (A report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a left-wing media watchdog, charts Clark’s statements on the war — before and after the invasion — and shows he has not been consistently anti-war.)

It’s hard to come across as a straight-talker non-politician when you have to spin your own remarks. And Clark’s standing as a political outsider — like Schwarzenegger’s — is undermined by the fact that he has surrounded himself with political hacks. The general has recruited key members of the old Gore squad for his campaign. Notably, Peter Knight, a longtime Gorenik, is aboard. He is of that distinct breed of Washington lobbyists (Bell Atlantic, Lockheed Martin, Browning-Ferris) who parlays his political connections into millions of dollars in fees, as he deals and wheedles on behalf of his corporate clients. More than once, Knight has been snared in sleazy money-and-politics exposés.

Still, Clark is intriguing as a possible white knight for the Democrats. He cannot, as Moore observed, be “Dukakisized” and branded a national-security wimp. In private talks with labor leaders he has come across as quite liberal and has said he favors a major public-investment program. “He’s a military socialist,” says one pro-Democratic strategist in Washington. “He saw how the military creates a community and provides its people with jobs, health care, housing, retirement security, and doesn’t see why that cannot be done for all the nation’s citizens.”

Clark’s white-knight potential causes jitters among the competition for the obvious reasons. Jim Jordan, the campaign manager for Senator John Kerry, one of the leading Democratic contenders, was quick to attack him, asserting that Clark has “a strange profile for a Democratic primary: a career military [man] with no domestic policy experience.” The question is, as the incoming attacks continue (and they will) and as his limited experience as a candidate shows (and it will), can the general stay on the horse?