Gen. Clark’s First Stand

For one weekend in New Hampshire, General Wesley K. Clark might as well have

been Dwight Eisenhower. His opponents, squabbling and surging in Iowa, had

ceded him the snowy roads. Voters packed the general’s town-hall meetings.

Up in Holderness, in the middle of the state, a woman sported a homemade “I

Like Clark” button. Down in Pembroke, Mr. Clark played to a crowd of well

over 1,000. It was as though the pragmatic, moderate wing of the Democratic

Party had quietly decided to unite behind this compact throwback to an

earlier generation who entered the race in September.

“Nobody’s done this since Eisenhower,” said Mr. Clark’s communications

strategist, Chris Lehane, referring to another general’s sudden entry into

Presidential politics in 1952.

The surprising results of the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 shifted the ground

beneath the feet of the five Democrats still seriously contesting the

Presidential nomination, and Iowa’s three main contenders-John Kerry, John

Edwards and Howard Dean-arrived in New Hampshire the next day in a

rearranged political order. Mr. Clark didn’t campaign in Iowa, but he felt

the ground shake, too. He’d been preparing to run as the electable

alternative to Howard Dean. Now he was reduced to pulling rank on John

Kerry, telling a reporter, “It’s one thing to be a hero as a junior officer

. but I’ve got the military experience at the top as well as at the bottom.”

During the weekend when he had the state to himself, Mr. Clark was running

at around 20 percent in the polls, second to Dr. Dean. The next week will

tell whether Mr. Kerry’s momentum will take some of the luster off Mr.

Clark’s brass.

During that quiet weekend in New Hampshire, it was easy to imagine that the

nomination was Mr. Clark’s to lose. But the price of the best weekend of the

general’s short political career had to be paid in advance. And it was paid

in the usual way: with a sometimes humbling half-million-dollar fund-raising

trip to New York City. He arrived on Jan. 12 and left the following

afternoon, finding time for six fund-raising events and a harrowing

half-hour of “greeting commuters” in Grand Central Terminal.

Mr. Clark did manage to shake hands with a few bona fide commuters before

feinting east in a maneuver no doubt learned at West Point: He retreated

toward a bank of glass exit doors on Vanderbilt and 42nd Street, pursued by

two dozen reporters and cameras. He had one foot outside the terminal when a

smiling woman with a digital video camera caught him.

“Do you ever feel like a trapped animal?” she asked. No, he assured her, he

was loving every minute of the attention. He tried to leave.

But by then, a pudgy, dark-haired man with a name tag identifying him as

Gabriel Feldman had stepped in front of the general.

“I’m from the New York City Department of Health,” the dark-haired man said.

“We’re promoting colonoscopies. Have you had a colonoscopy?”

Mr. Clark gave him a good-humored, incredulous look and explained that

military men of his rank all get colonoscopies.

“All right,” Mr. Feldman said. “I got free press. The Mayor will be happy.”

Two midtown fund-raisers later, Mr. Clark boarded the Lexington Avenue line

for a third fund-raiser near City Hall. He takes the subway regularly when

he’s in New York, and he grabs the pole just an instant before the train is

going to leave, riding with the confidence of an out-of-town kid who has

mastered the city. That’s what he was in the 1960’s, when he first rode the

subway from Port Authority to visit his wife-to-be, Gert, in Flatbush.

“They weren’t as well-maintained as they are today,” he said. “These subways

are very good.”

Most of the passengers strained to ignore Mr. Clark and his entourage, but

one man by the door asked about mass transit. “What do you think of federal

policies in terms of suburban sprawl?” he asked.

“What are the federal policies concerning suburban sprawl?” Mr. Clark asked

back.

“Highways are highly subsidized; trains and mass transit are not,” the man

said.

“Well, in most places trains and mass transit are also highly subsidized,”

said Mr. Clark, who gives the impression of relishing a good argument. The

train stopped at 14th Street. “We’ve got to let this person off,” he

instructed his entourage. “We’ve got to be nice to these people.”

The general, in his politician’s dark suit and red tie, seemed a bit tense;

one staffer explained that his last subway interview, with Lloyd Grove of

the Daily News, hadn’t gone so well. (That was when Mr. Clark told a fellow

passenger, “I think all Americans-and this is a joke!-all Americans, even if

they’re from the South and stupid, should be represented.”)

This time around, Mr. Clark was on message, batting away questions about

raising money and about the Clintons. Fund-raising, he said, was no sweat.

“People are so determined to change this government that they’ve been very

generous to me,” he said.

Then he turned to a favorite topic: his success in the Granite State, where

polls at the time had him a strong second to Dr. Dean. “I think they’re just

responding to an ordinary person who’s committed to offering to help the

public,” he said. He brushed off a first round of attacks from Dr. Dean and

Mr. Kerry.

“It doesn’t bother me. That’s just old-style politics,” he said, before

getting off the train toward his sixth and final fund-raiser. “It’s a heck

of a lot of fun in New Hampshire.”

Alone and Happy

New Hampshire, during the weekend of Jan. 17 and 18, wasn’t just fun for Mr.

Clark: It was a dream. With a little more than a week to go before the

primary, Mr. Clark was the only major Democrat to set foot in the state for

two days. The other leading candidates, the campaign armies, even the gnomes

who staple posters to lampposts, had all departed for Iowa. Joseph Lieberman

was in South Carolina. The most visible challenge came from Lyndon LaRouche,

the fringe figure known for his attacks on the Trilateral Commission, who

sent plants to grill Mr. Clark at town-hall meetings.

(Mr. LaRouche, incidentally, has gotten weirder since you last checked in on

him in 1976: his glossy red campaign pamphlet this year sports a picture of

Dick Cheney on the cover beneath a shadowy image of a demon swinging an ax.

It reads “Children of Satan II: The Beast-Men.”)

The press coverage was also mild. While swarms of reporters and technicians

followed the candidates through Iowa, Mr. Clark was trailed for most of the

weekend by a small group on a filthy press bus. The core of his campaign

coverage was just five reporters: one each from The New York Times and the

Boston Globe, and three young women with identical Sony digital-video

cameras from ABC, CBS and MSNBC, which have used the new technology to

replace camera operators at second-tier events. At a Sunday-afternoon visit

to the mall in Keene, Mr. Clark mistakenly leaned over to the CBS reporter

to ask for a campaign flyer. “You’re almost on my staff,” he joked.

Meanwhile, the general seemed to be hitting his stride. As recently as

December, he had no set stump speech and seemed to ramble. “He was

incoherent,” said one prominent supporter.

Now, he was getting the opposite reaction. “I’m overwhelmed. I’m definitely

going to vote for him,” said Robert Landry, a truck driver from Keene. Like

many listeners, he said he was taken more by the general’s intelligence than

any more visceral appeal. “His vocabulary is excellent,” he said.

The stump speech is still bumpy at times. The main punctuation marks seem to

be colons, which mark the transitions from one section to the next:

“Patriotism: . Faith: . Family: . and Inclusive Leadership: . ” But Mr.

Clark’s unusual story helps make up for the ordinariness of the political

text, and he makes the audience laugh with the details of his early love of

country-a recollection, for example, of racing out to the backyard with his

stepfather’s shotgun shells in the fall of 1957, planning to build a rocket

to shoot down Sputnik.

The details of his patriotic Arkansas upbringing, his time at West Point, in

Vietnam and in the Balkans set up his hardest punch, and the one that

brought out roars from crowds in Holderness, Laconia and Pembroke:

“What I don’t think is patriotic, as President of the United States, is to

climb into a flight suit and prance around on the deck of an aircraft

carrier.”

Mr. Clark’s assault on President Bush sometimes goes a little further.

“Before 9/11, he failed to do everything he could have done to keep this

country safe,” he said in Holderness.

Arguable or not, the general’s hindsight seems to cross some invisible line.

Audience members and even his staff shift in their seats a little when he

says that Mr. Bush should have prevented the attacks, and that he would

have.

“That was not poll-tested or adviser-given,” shrugged Mr. Clark’s

communications director, Matt Bennett. “You suggest he stop and he says,

‘Why? That’s what I think.'”

The General and Me

A few hours later, at a rally at Pembroke Academy in southern New Hampshire,

filmmaker Michael Moore gave voice to the campaign’s animating logic: that

once voters compare Mr. Clark’s military credentials with Mr. Bush’s,

they’ll see the President through Michael Moore’s eyes.

“A four-star general. Head of his class at West Point. Rhodes Scholar.

Captain of the debate team,” he said. “I know-you’re thinking what I’m

thinking, right? I want to see that debate: the general versus the

deserter.”

The crowd roared, but some of Mr. Clark’s more moderate supporters, like

Representatives Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn and Rahm Emmanuel of Illinois,

winced through parts of Mr. Moore’s lengthy endorsement, particularly when

the filmmaker expressed his glee at the general’s plan to raise the income

tax on people earning over $1 million.

“He socked it to the rich-he socked it right to them! He didn’t have to do

that! Issue after issue after issue-I couldn’t believe it was this good!”

Mr. Moore shouted.

But the crowd loved it, and when the event ended, the well-wishers separated

into two clusters of equal size-one around Mr. Clark, the other around Mr.

Moore.

The endorsement from Mr. Moore, a stalwart of the Democratic Party’s left

wing, seemed to be part of the response to Howard Dean-remember when he was

the front-runner?-who had called Mr. Clark “a Republican.” The next morning,

Mr. Clark offered another response to that jab. At a pancake breakfast in

Keene, Mr. Clark was joined at the griddle by George McGovern, whose

disastrous campaign in 1972 had failed in 49 states-and who treated the

general to a lecture on how losing isn’t all that bad.

Already, reality was beginning to return. Mr. Clark has a week of trench

warfare in New Hampshire. On Sunday, a scruffy blond man with John Edwards

bumper stickers chased the general’s campaign bus through the hills of

western New Hampshire in a battered blue hatchback, taping everything the

candidate said. Mr. Clark made plans to go to a bar to watch the New England

Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts play for the right to advance to the

Super Bowl. Although he insists he’s not a politician, the general did

discover an affection for the Patriots, who have a rabid following in the

region, in recent weeks. As he arrived at a bar in Sunapee, he found a

handful of hulking “Arkansas Firefighters for Kerry” lurking outside,

explaining their preference to anybody who would listen. Inside the bar, the

co-owner wouldn’t let reporters sit in the dining area.

“He’s a Kerry guy, so he’s fucking us,” muttered a Clark campaign aide.

Mr. Clark left at half-time (the Patriots eventually won) for a Best Western

on a hill at the edge of town, but his driver overshot the entrance. As the

bulky blue van attempted a U-turn, it buried its nose in a snow bank. Mr.

Clark was the first one out, legs bent, pushing furiously on the hood.

“Keep going, keep going!” he barked to his staff.

Gen. Clark’s First Stand