Judging from the hoopla and hype in the media, from CNN to the NY Times, the decision by retired four-star general Wesley Clark to throw his hat into the ring as a Democratic Party presidential contender is something akin to the second coming. He’s a genuine hero, we’re told, and Americans, particularly in key states like Texas and the Southeast, will go for his military background.
What is this passion for generals as leaders, anyhow? There was the same kind of fawning adoration being expressed about John McCain during the Republican primaries last time around. (In fact, it was in a pathetic effort to capture some of that adoration that George Bush, the National Guard deserter and scofflaw, donned his now infamous flight suit and did an orchestrated and carefully staged landing on an aircraft carrier flight deck.)
What, it’s fair to ask though, does Sen. John McCain’s Vietnam-era bomber flying and POW experience, or Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam-era river patrol boat captaining experience, offer in the way of presidential leadership skills? At least Clark, as a former Supreme NATO commander, and former head of the U.S. Army’s Southern Command (Latin America), can claim some executive experience.
But running a military operation, even a small river boat, and certainly an army division, is nothing like running a country, at least in what still passes for a democracy. Generals run things by ordering people to do stuff. Presidents must lead by convincing both the public and the Congress to do what they want done.
Is it courage people are looking for? Well, presumably both Kerry and Clark have shown courage under fire, as attested by their Silver Star medals from the Vietnam War, but really, that is not the same as political courage. Political courage is not about putting one’s life on the line. It’s about being willing to stand for things that might lead to one’s losing an election, because it’s the right thing to do. Has either Kerry or Clark demonstrated that kind of courage? If anything, it was Kerry’s decision to come out against the war in Indochina, after he returned from it, which showed some political courage, but sadly, it’s his legacy as a fighter, not an anti-war activist, that candidate Kerry is touting on the campaign trail.
Candidate Clark’s initial forays into the public forum have not been encouraging in the political courage area. In a CNN interview, he backed off of his earlier embrace of the term ‘liberal,” saying instead that he preferred to eschew labels. On the matter of the war, he now equivocates and says in a New York Times piece today that he probably would have voted with the congressional pack and authorized war (which is no doubt true). This is courage?
Americans in the past have turned to generals and military leaders of other rank many times to lead the country, beginning of course with George Washington. There were also, among others, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and of course more recently, Dwight Eisenhower. Their records as presidents have been probably no better or worse than civilian presidents. While opinions about Grant as a Civil War general are mixed,, most historians agree his past-war presidency was a disaster. Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, is rated a success. Eisenhower, who is often credited with having had the prescience to warn of a military-industrial complex, actually oversaw the institutionalization of a permanent war economy, set the country on its grim course in Indochina, deepened the Cold War, and allowed America’s malignant race crisis to fester during his two terms of office.
In retrospect, America’s experience with soldier-presidents in the White House has been at best a mixed bag.
Michael Moore says he looks forward to a Clark candidacy. He cites Clark’s observation that wars should only be “a last resort,” and his defense of liberalism and political dissidence, as well as the ex-general’s support for abortion rights, affirmative action and his opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act. Moore says we’re at war in America, and need to oust President Bush from office, and he suggests that maybe a general is what the Democrats need to accomplish that.
It might be that Clark will turn out to be one of the more liberal of the Democratic candidates (though he’s unlikely to take a stand against NAFTA, the way Rep. Dennis Kucinich has done). More likely, he’ll turn out to be a kind of Clinton-style centrist–no surprise since it now appears that it was Clinton who really pushed Clark into running, not, as originally claimed, an internet draft movement.
It’s safe to say that Clark’s entry into the Democratic primary race will enliven the contest. But leftists, progressives and liberals should be on their guard, and avoid allowing themselves to be sucked in by a Clark bandwagon.
A Democratic presidential nominee with a four-star dress uniform hanging in his closet might be nice to have for the 2004 presidential race against military poser George Bush, but the man wearing it still has a lot of explaining to do before he should get our support.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html