On The Trail

Wesley Clark’s Patriot Act

The general unveils his campaign message in South Carolina.

CHARLESTON, S.C.—There’s a Simpsons episode in which two aliens run for president and effortlessly ape the bromides used by American political candidates, to the delight of assembled crowds. Proclaims one: “We must move forward, not backward. Upward, not forward. And always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom!”

That’s what retired Gen. Wesley Clark sounded like on the stump Monday at the first event in South Carolina for his incipient presidential campaign. Clark’s campaign hasn’t coalesced yet into a bona fide organization, structure, and message. It’s more like a clever mimicry of what a generic Democratic presidential campaign would look like. At Manny’s Restaurant in downtown Charleston, Clark mouths the standard litany of bedrock Democratic issues with a Schwarzeneggerian level of specificity.

It could be a pastiche of the other candidates’ stump speeches. He drops a reference to Herbert Hoover, then to Vietnam. He supports small businesses. He’s upset about the economy, lost jobs, the deficit, education, and national security, which he calls simply “security.” (One of Clark’s rhetorical tricks is to turn every issue into “security.” He talks about “retirement security” and “health security.” When a voter asks him about energy, he replies, “It is the nation’s security.”) Clark is in favor of “diversity” and “bringing people together.” He’s proud that America has “the greatest set of values, the greatest political system in the history of mankind.” He doesn’t want to “build a wall around America”; he wants “to build bridges outward to others.”

His plan for education, heath care, and retirement? “We need to put the resources in.” Also, it “requires vision. … We need that vision in America today.” Young people, middle-aged people, and seniors, they need vision, too. “So they can take the risks and get the learning.” Oh, and for the uninsured, he wants to “help them get insurance.”

The more anodyne the line, the more likely it is to draw applause. “I think we need new directions. I think we need new ideas. I think America can do better, and I think we must do better,” meets with loud approval. “The real strength of America is not in its weapons, it’s in its people. And that’s true in our military, it’s true in our economy, it’s true throughout this great land,” draws enthusiastic cheers, too. The point at which I start to believe this is actually an elaborate and inspired parody of a presidential campaign event is when Clark picks up a baby and slowly, deliberately kisses it, once on each cheek. He’s subtly mocking the cliché while simultaneously embracing it, and the crowd eats it up.

Some policy specifics do emerge, as well as some partisanship. One voter tells Clark not to let Republicans paint him as a left-winger. “This is war,” Clark replies. “It’s a culture war, and I’m their greatest threat. They’re doing everything they can to destroy me right now.” To a voter concerned about military bloat, Clark suggests that he wants to cut the Air Force budget. “I think we can do some things,” he says. “They’ll probably be Air Force things. I’ve looked at the Air Force budget. It’s a little excessive.”

An hour later at the Citadel, Clark faces a less enthusiastic crowd, but his performance is more impressive. Perhaps it’s because the speech focuses on national security and foreign policy—sure ground for Clark because he’s familiar with it, because he speaks with authority about it, and because it provides the justification for his campaign.

The speech starts out poorly, precisely because Clark is still struggling to explain that justification. Clark says he is going to tell us why he’s running, but he merely transitions into his biography and résumé. He served in Vietnam. He stayed in the Army after the war. He “was proud to have served in the armed forces that won the Cold War.” He helped negotiate peace in Bosnia. He was NATO’s supreme commander in Europe.

Things begin to pick up when Clark defends the Clinton record without ever naming the president who presided over the creation of “22 million new jobs in eight years.” When Clark left the Army “in the summer of 2000, it was the very apex of American power.” The Germans and Japanese had been defeated again, this time economically. The lowest unemployment rate in 30 years. A budget surplus. Lower crime. Welfare reform. A protected environment. “And an armed forces that was the envy of every nation.”

“I’m running for president because I could not stand by and watch everything that we fought for, everything that our nation had accomplished and become, unravel before our eyes,” Clark says. He then talks about something I haven’t heard before, something I expect to become the theme of his campaign: a “new patriotism” (though there’s a chance it could disappear as quickly as Bill Clinton’s “new covenant”).

Clark’s twin campaign themes are patriotism and public service, and he has to find a way to resolve those themes with his frontal assault on a sitting president during a time of war. He does it by appropriating the word “patriotism” and redefining it for himself. On a campus where students march and chant in lines, not in puppet-brandishing crowds, Clark declares that dissenters are the true patriots: “Patriotism doesn’t consist of following orders—not when you’re not in the chain of command. For the American people, for citizens in a democracy, patriotism’s highest calling isn’t simply following what the administration says. It’s not blind obedience. It’s not unquestioned adherence. The highest form of patriotism is asking questions. Because democracies run on dialogue. Democracies run on discussion. No administration has the right to tell Americans that to dissent is disloyal, and to disagree is unpatriotic. …

“We need a new spirit, a new kind of, a new American patriotism in this country. … [T]his new spirit of patriotism should be dedicated to the protection of our rights and liberties. … In times of war or peace, democracy requires dialogue, disagreement, and the courage to speak out. And those who do it should not be condemned but be praised.”

No other Democratic candidate, not even John Kerry, could stand in front of two 75 mm howitzers on the quad of a nearly all-male military college and defend the antiwar left without looking faintly ridiculous. Wesley Clark is Howard Dean with flags.