Chewing on Wesley

As Clark has just learned, once you're in prime time, the press pack goes on full-time Flub Alert

The first 10 days of Gen. Wesley Clark's campaign for president felt like one of those nature channel shows where the unsuspecting little gazelle wanders out into the savannah and is immediately pounced on by a pack of starved hyenas. The ensuing carnage is a bit shocking, and part of you suspects the whole thing might be staged. But man, it's great television.

And like Animal Planet, even as it entertains, the Wesley Clark show teaches some useful lessons about our world.

One is that you just can't predict who's ready for prime time. Here's a guy who not only survived a couple of wars, but also mastered the arcane arts of the Washington bureaucracy, including advanced backstabbing and high-intensity apple-polishing. As if all that weren't training enough for a White House race, he went on to become a TV pundit.

But major-league politics is nothing like fighting a war. And the toolkit of the wily insider is useless when every move you make, every meeting and phone call, could wind up in tomorrow's paper—and generally does.

That leaves Clark's talking-head background, which might seem a great asset for a new candidate. In fact, TV experience can be a handicap. Pundits are held to a very low standard. Today, you can go on television and say pretty much any asinine thing you like, and nobody cares. (Indeed, the more asinine you are, the better the chances you'll be invited back and given your own show.) Pundits can be inarticulate, inconsistent, and just plain foggy six days out of seven, and pay no price for it. Read the transcript of any cable chat show, and you'll see what I mean.

But as Clark has just learned, presidential candidates get no such slack. Every flub is a potential media disaster, and once you make a few of them, the press pack goes on fulltime Flub Alert, and starts ridiculing every little mistake.

This is not a new phenomenon. Dan Quayle got a reputation as a dim bulb and hopeless mangler of the language—remember "potatoe"?—and never shook it. Something similar is already happening to Clark. He did well as a talking head, when nobody was watching all that closely. But now that he's under the microscope, it's clear he's not the first-rate specimen he seemed.

You know a guy's in trouble when his campaign's not a week old and The Hotline, National Journal Group's political briefing for insiders, is publishing a lengthy "timeline" of amusing "Clarkisms," including this:

"I have no idea where I am. I am so confused right now."—Clark to his aides "as he searched for a route back to his hotel room" in Iowa City (Daily Iowan, 9/19)

And then there was this moment from a New York Times story earlier this week, datelined Charleston, S.C.:

Today was Day Six of the campaign, and General Clark's 20-minute stump speech at the hastily arranged event here had a few rough patches. "Patriotism doesn't consist of following the orders, not, not, not when you're not in the chain of command," the general said, stumbling over his words and catching himself before he inadvertently encouraged insubordination in the ranks.

Thus, Clark went overnight from the Renaissance man with the first-rate intellect to a bumbling boob, less and less like Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and more and more like Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife.

But the most fascinating aspect of the Clark debut was the way media people instantly let it be known that, frankly speaking, old Wes makes them a little nauseous. A fresh presidential candidate often gets a bit of a media honeymoon, when journalists run around saying the gooiest things about their special new honey. Think John Edwards last year, or Howard Dean last summer.

Clark's honeymoon ended before it had even begun. On the morning of the day he announced, The Washington Post hit the street with a front-pager basically calling into question Clark's fitness for office. Oh, the story had all the usual awed superlatives about Clark's amazing career, and praise from some who know him. But what stuck out were a couple of deadly stingers from unnamed retired generals, including this:

"The guy is brilliant," said the general, who agreed to speak candidly about Clark only if his name were not used. "He's very articulate, he's extremely charming, he has the best strategic sense of anybody I have ever met. But the simple fact is, a lot of people just don't trust his ability" as a commander.

While his strategic analysis is "almost infallible," his command solutions tended to be problematic, even "goofy," the general said, "and he pushed them even when they weren't going to work."

The general said Clark "needs to win, right down to the core of his fiber," which tends to make him "highly manipulative."

Yowch. It's unusual for the major papers to unload on a candidate in quite so direct a fashion, so early in the game. The Post piece sent an unmistakable signal to the rest of the media establishment. Soon, all kinds of pundits, from Richard Cohen to Robert Novak, were speaking up with dark doubts about the man's fiber, even as the larger media chorus broke into a chant about how the general might be just a pathetic pawn, a "stalking horse" for Hillary Clinton.

Earlier this week, Gen. Clark had a striking debut in the polls, topping all other Democratic contenders. That may have looked like fabulous news for him, but from a media point of view, it was pure disaster. An underdog has become the new overdog. And you know what journalists do to them.