CONCORD, N.H.—“This is so unfair, really,” Gen. Wesley Clark moans from behind the dressing-room door. He’s at the L.L. Bean Factory Store, and all he wants to do is try on a sweater, a plain, green, wool crewneck sweater, in private. But such is the plight of the presidential candidate in the surveillance society. Eight reporters and three minicams wait outside.
For better or worse, this is the most exciting event of the day. It’s Thursday just after noon, and the press corps is getting antsy. Clark spent the morning doing interviews on television and radio, while the traveling press was shipped to a Panera sandwich shop to loll about. But after the tedium of watching a man deliver the same speech over and over and over again, watching him try on a sweater feels like entertainment.
When Clark arrived at the store, he was the one doing the razzing. “You need a new jacket. That looks like an Arkansas jacket,” he said to Paul Barton, a rumpled reporter from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who doesn’t look adequately dressed for the below-zero temperatures that are about to hit New Hampshire. (We’re at L.L. Bean because several reporters wanted to stock up on winter clothing. “How do you pack for six weeks?” one reporter explains.) Clark gets a kick out of teasing Barton, who hails from Clark’s hometown of Little Rock. “He used to be on the TV show Columbo,” Clark says. “But now he’s traveling with us.” Later, Barton strikes back, calling out, “General, do you want this atlas of Vermont?”
The rest of the press begins to join in. After Clark strategist Chris Lehane purchases a hunting cap, an Ignatius Reilly number with earflaps, several reporters urge the general to purchase a “Lehane hat” to go with the sweater he’s shopping for. Clark demurs. “I’m not into hats. Nice try, guys.”
“What I want is exactly this sweater,” he declares, holding up a forest green crewneck. “If I can’t find it, I’m buying this one and shrinking it. Paul, do you need a sweater?” Clark heads toward the dressing room to change, and the three women from the networks who record the general’s every move teasingly ask if they can tag along. “Do you want to come with me?” he asks. No, not really, they say. “Then don’t ask,” he says, smiling.
Clark buys the sweater and wears it that night. But believe it or not, the episode isn’t the last time the subject of the general’s potential near-nakedness comes up. At the end of the day, some reporters plead with Clark to allow them to watch him go swimming the next morning. Clark’s swimming prowess is heralded in the campaign film American Son, which is shown before some of the “Conversations with Clark” town halls. He swam two legs in a medley relay race for his state-championship swimming team in high school. (In a related subject, the 59-year-old Clark appears quite dashing to some women. One reporter says some older women told her he was “eye candy.” Polls show that Howard Dean has much greater support among women than Clark does, but for sheer physical attractiveness, at least some women seem to think that it’s Clark, not John Edwards, who’s the matinee idol among the Democratic candidates.)
Clark sounds open to having reporters watch him swim, but he doesn’t want any cameras to witness the event. When nearly everything you do gets caught on tape, maybe you need just a little time alone. Or maybe Clark’s just tired of modeling for the press. As he put it, “No beefcake.”