In many presidential campaigns a moment arrives when disappointment with the declared candidates sets in, and a dream candidate emerges—one who seems to personify all that is missing from the field. Colin Powell was once such a figure for the Republicans, and Mario Cuomo for the Democrats. Often a candidate's very unavailability is a large part of his appeal. The paradox is that the hold on the imagination that attractive outsiders have from afar often disappears when they enter the race, and suffer the same scrutiny and attack as any other candidate. Perhaps for this reason few of them actually declare themselves. Howard Dean, who started out as this kind of outsider, still enjoys something like this hold, even though he declared early. The person playing the role of Hamlet candidate is Wesley Clark—a retired four-star general, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, a Rhodes scholar, a war hero, and, in every meaningful way save actual registration, a Democrat.
Over the past year Clark traveled the country delivering speeches notable for their strident criticism of the Bush Administration's prosecution of the war on terrorism and, recently, its handling of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. At the same time, he encouraged speculation that he would seek the Democratic nomination; as this piece went to press he signaled that he was on the verge of making a decision. Many Democrats believe that Clark could be a Promethean figure for a party deemed profoundly insufficient on the very subjects—national security and military issues—likely to dominate the 2004 campaign. "Clark has the ability to single-handedly reverse three decades of weakness by the Democratic Party in the area of national security," Timothy Bergreen, the founder of the think tank Democrats for National Security, recently told me.
Although the odds seem long that he will be the first general to become the Democratic presidential nominee since Winfield Scott Hancock, in 1880, Clark is an obvious choice for Vice President. In fact, one reason that many Democrats (including the head of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe) want him to get in the race is their hope that some of his military credibility will rub off on the party.
Like earlier outsiders (and like Howard Dean), Clark has a kind of bracing forthrightness guaranteed to attract notice in national politics. When I first went to see him, in his Washington office last December, Clark was working as a military analyst for CNN and had just begun to emerge as a political figure. Wiry and self-assured, with neat gray hair, he has the bearing of one accustomed to being in charge. Behind a lectern or on television this bearing is less fierce. But in person he is often so intense it seems that anyone who leaned forward and touched him might get an electric shock.
Clark's military career culminated when he led the nineteen-member NATO coalition that drove Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999. That experience, Clark told me, instilled in him an unshakable belief in the power of working through alliances, and it is the foundation for his criticism of the Bush Administration's foreign policy.
As Clark argued in Waging Modern War, his 2001 memoir of the Kosovo campaign, NATO's action against Milosevic provided a blueprint for how future wars should be fought. At the time of the action many nations, the United States prominent among them, had doubts about a military campaign. By waging war through NATO, Clark gained the assurance that the governments of all nineteen member nations had a political stake in the campaign and thus a commitment to victory. Working with NATO required extraordinary diplomatic efforts; every nation theoretically had to approve a strike on any target. Nevertheless, Clark concluded that having allied support for America's use of force sent a powerful message to the enemy and imparted crucial political backing for the military campaign—benefits that far outweighed any tactical restrictions.
Clark believes that working with allies is more than a diplomatic necessity —it makes a military power stronger; he calls an alliance a "force multiplier." Even though other candidates take similar positions, Clark can explain his in commonsense terms that elude them, and with the authority of someone who won a war. He is likely to find an increasingly receptive audience if the news from Iraq gets worse.
"I would have first aligned the United Nations and NATO against al-Qaeda," he told me in December. "Then, when it comes time to work against Iraq or Iran or North Korea, you've got a strong, committed group of allies." The order of threat, he believed, was al-Qaeda, North Korea, and Iran—and then Iraq. Clark did not oppose intervening in Iraq; he simply thought the Bush Administration's military decision was premature, and reckless in its unilateralism.
As we spoke, his cell phone rang. "We're off to CNN," he announced. What followed was typical of Clark's life as not-quite-candidate. He found himself the victim of a friendly ambush by the host of Inside Politics, Judy Woodruff: "General Clark, it's known that you've been meeting privately, quietly, with big Democratic donors ... You've been talking to reporters in Iowa, the first caucus state. Just for the sake of credibility, isn't it a good idea now for you to say openly that you are thinking about whether to run for President?" Clark's answer—one he frequently repeated afterward—showed that he had already mastered the noncommittal political response: "Judy, I'm not a candidate. I haven't declared a party. I haven't taken political money." Off camera, Clark feigned dismay at the question. Yet in the same breath he jokingly complained to Woodruff that her husband, Al Hunt, had neglected to include his name in a Wall Street Journal column that day listing the Democratic front-runners.
When we returned from CNN, an aide stood waiting beside a rental car to ferry us to another appointment. Clark, who still runs his life as though he were conducting a military campaign, grabbed the keys, nodded for the aide and me to climb in, and shot out into rush-hour traffic. The aide took a halfhearted stab at briefing his boss while Clark—slouched low, cell phone cradled to ear—tore across Independence Avenue in view of the White House, weaving in and out of lanes. As we approached the Old Executive Office Building, Clark, seeing nowhere to park, glanced at his watch and then at me. "Listen, I'm late," he said. "Do you have plans?" I shook my head. Without another word he pulled over, tossed me the keys, and disappeared into the building, his aide scrambling to keep up. I found a parking space. A few hours later Clark called to get the keys.
Over the nine months I observed him, part of Clark's strategy as shadow candidate was to make great drama of asserting his nonpartisanship while simultaneously issuing winking, present-tense-only denials of his candidacy. He had, after all, given lectures for the better part of two years, put forth a foreign policy, cobbled together a center-left domestic policy, and established a not-for-profit organization with a name—Leadership for America—that smacks of presidential ambition.