Wesley Clark was top of his class at West Point, a Rhodes scholar, a decorated four-star general and the man who humbled Slobodan Milosevic when Clark was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. But if he made any impression at all on many Americans, it happened after he retired and found stardom on CNN as one of the smoothest and most antiwar of the corps of generals turned commentators during the Iraq war. So maybe it was not such a surprise that just 1 1/2 hours after Clark made another career leap last week, he could be found in his spartan Little Rock, Ark., office, remote control in hand, transfixed by the talking heads' first take on his newborn presidential campaign. "A placeholder for Hillary Rodham Clinton," Pat Buchanan huffed from the screen. "I think we're seeing the idea percolating here of a Clinton-Clark ticket." Clark sighed and hit the mute button. "Oh, brother," he said. "Politics."
Welcome aboard, sir. Clark's announcement that he was running landed like a rocket-propelled grenade in the messy bunker that is the Democratic presidential field. He's off to a late start, but thanks to an Internet-driven draft movement, Clark has the beginnings of an organization and the promise of millions of dollars. Making the rounds of Democratic salons in New York and Los Angeles in recent weeks, he has wowed some of the people who could gather millions more. Within 24 hours of getting into the race, Clark had a list of congressional endorsements more impressive than anyone else's except former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt's.
But politics quickly proved a trickier terrain for the telegenic antiwar general than even the battlefields of Yugoslavia. Only a day after his announcement, Clark told reporters on his campaign plane that if he had been in Congress last fall, he probably would have voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq. In a single sentence he had undermined the rationale for his whole candidacy--at least for those who saw him as Howard Dean with stars and a war record. Clark seems to have realized this himself, for the next day he reversed course. "I would never have voted for this war," he told the Associated Press. "I've gotten a very consistent record on this." His flip-flop delighted some of his rivals. "If it doesn't get any better than the first 24 hours," says a strategist for another Democrat, "he's going to be gone in two weeks." Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, is warier. "The other campaigns make a mistake if they don't take him seriously," Trippi says. "It's going to take a month or two to know what to make of him."