|Drafting the General
|By Suzi Parker
|LITTLE ROCK - The atmosphere in Juanita's Party Room on this August Monday night is frenzied.
That's because Wesley K. Clark will be here. Not in person, but via taped Webcast from California. It doesn't matter. He'll speak to this group of 150 or so people and that's the important thing.
People chatter, buzzing about the possibility that Clark, 58, a Little Rock resident and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, may run for president.
Finally, his face, framed by a tight graying haircut, appears on the white wall.
"I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your dedication, for your faith in each other that's brought all of you together and to say that we can do great things for America," Clark said. He doesn't blink much, smiles some. "Each and every one of us working together, working on behalf of the causes we believe in and helping to make this country strong and great and good."
The crowd erupts, clapping and shouting, "Clark, Clark, Clark."
Some of the people here are seasoned politicos. Most have never been involved in politics but like the leadership potential in this retired Army general.
Will he run?
At meet-ups all over the country, Clark fans are seeing this footage. The Draft Clark camp claims more than 200 chapters in 50 states, Guam and the Virgin Islands and a dozen more student chapters. The Draft Clark 2004 Web site last week received a record 20,000 hits. The various Draft Clark movements have been represented at the last two Democratic debates, Labor Day picnics and political events all over the United States.
Draft Clark 2004 located to Little Rock in July to help another group - Arkansans for Clark - with their efforts in the general's backyard.
"It's amazing how the interest has increased," says Jeff Dailey, the organizer for Arkansans for Clark. "We get calls from all over the country with people wanting to volunteer, donate, do anything."
Of the draft movement, Clark said, "It's an honor. . . . Incredible."
For several weeks, Clark has been telling associates and media that he is pondering a run but that he has not come to "closure" on the issue. It was less than two weeks ago when Clark finally committed to a political party: He's a Democrat with no political experience.
Last weekend, Clark met with Howard Dean, the Democratic front-runner, about the possibility of being vice president. Clark declined comment on the meeting, but associates say he has no interest in a second-place slot.
A Little Rock boy
Clark certainly has the resume for a leadership role.
Until 2000, Clark's role within NATO was overseeing the organization's 19 governments while leading the charge against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Clark commanded Operation Allied Force, NATO's first major combat action, which saved 1.5 million Albanians from potential "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. At the same time, he was commander-in-chief of the United States European Command, which encompasses U.S. forces stationed in 80 countries across Europe and Africa.
Although Clark is not a native Arkansan, his connection to the region is nearly lifelong.
Clark was a small boy when he moved to Little Rock with his mother. The family had lived in Chicago, where Clark's father was a lawyer. Benjamin Kanne suffered a fatal heart attack and Clark's mother, Veneta, returned to Little Rock soon after his death to be near her parents.
In Little Rock, Veneta met Vincent Clark, a banker, and remarried. He gave Clark his surname. Clark, whose birth father was Jewish, never knew of his roots until later in life when a member of the Kanne family contacted him. He grew up Southern Baptist and converted to Catholicism before going to Vietnam. These days, he attends a Little Rock Presbyterian church with his wife of 30-plus years, Gert. The Clarks have a grown son, Wes, who lives in California.
Clark grew up in Little Rock during the Central High integration crisis of 1957. When the city's schools closed over the crisis, Clark's parents sent him away during his 10th-grade year to Castle Heights Military School in Lebanon, Tenn. He returned a year later to Little Rock's Hall High.
A look through high school yearbooks shows Clark was building an impressive resume at an early age.
He was National Honor Society president, Math Club secretary, swim team captain, a member of Boys State, a National Merit Semifinalist, an editorial board member of the school newspaper, a member of Beta Club, the Science and Engineer Club, Key Club and Garland Forensics Society (debate team). He wasn't first in his class, but that's not surprising, said Jean Wallace, a fellow student who now heads up Warriors for Wes.
"There were just a lot of really smart people in that class who went on to be professors, doctors, biochemists, but Wes was right up there," she said.
He was first in his 1966 graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he received a master's degree in philosophy, politics and economics.
Clark's Army service began during the Vietnam War. In an ambush with the Viet Cong, he received four gunshot wounds to his leg and hand, but still managed to direct a counterattack and lead his platoon to safety, earning a Silver Star and Purple Heart.
Through a year of intense physical therapy, Clark taught himself to walk again, although a quarter of his calf muscle was gone. He also mastered a firm handshake, despite the missing muscle around his right thumb.
From there, he climbed to the military's highest ranks.
Admired GI Joe
In person, Clark has a contained charisma and seems the calm GI Joe, always in control. Friendly but cautious, Clark, a keen wit, will crack the casual joke while multitasking on his BlackBerry, taking notes about the economy and talking world affairs.
Clark's friends and associates say he is determined, a visionary, 20 years ahead of his time. He is also still fiercely admired, especially by those in Little Rock.
John Wilkes was friends with Clark at Hall High, and recalls him as brilliant and considerate. Wilkes also recalls that his younger sister was in love with Clark.
"He had a great physique, was a great leader, and smart as hell. Who wouldn't be in love with him?" Wilkes said.
Wilkes never forgot Clark, although the two boys lost touch with each other. In 1985, Wilkes visited Washington for the first time, and the Vietnam Memorial. He knew Clark had fought in the war but did not know his fate. He walked up to the memorial, shaking, he said, because he didn't want to find Clark's name among the dead.
"Why does a person care about a person like that after so many years?" Wilkes asked. "It's just the kind of person Clark is. You remember him, admire him."
Clark left the military in 2000 after a political skirmish over the conduct of the war in Kosovo. He needed more ground troops in Kosovo. Washington was opposed. He went public. The chasm grew between Clark and Washington. The war in Kosovo ended, and Clark was a star in Europe. But the Clinton administration seemed lost about what to do with Clark. He was relieved of his command; nine months after that order, he retired.
His abrupt return to the civilian world was cushioned by a job with Arkansas-based brokerage house Stephens Inc. as well as a contract as a military analyst with CNN.
He left Stephens this year to start his own consulting and strategy business. He left his CNN job in June. Clark hasn't disclosed how much money he made at either of those jobs.
Rollie Remmel befriended Clark in 1999 at a sister-city meeting between Mons, Belgium, where Clark was based, and Little Rock. Remmel, a wealthy, elderly Republican businessman, has since become business and hunting partners with Clark.
Remmel leased Clark an office in a building he owns. The pair, along with two other investors, worked with researchers to develop a cattle feed made from agricultural byproducts. It has a patent pending.
Clark also is chairman of Wave crest Laboratories, a leading-edge technology company in Dulles, Va., that has developed an electric propulsion system. The goal: to put electric motors on military bikes that will allow soldiers to move quickly during military action.
He sits on the board of four other companies.
In addition to his business interests, Clark is an author. In 2001, Clark published Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo and the Future of Combat. On Oct. 14, Clark's follow-up book, Winning Modern War, will hit shelves. Clark said he wrote the latest book "to provide a more comprehensive review of U.S. actions since 9/11 . . . and to critique and suggest a better strategy."
He says he was opposed to invading Iraq without international support. He thinks al-Qaeda and North Korea are bigger threats.
Money and timing
Clark said he could have retired anywhere in the world but chose to return to Arkansas.
"It's home," he said. "I love Little Rock, and the people there, the people I went to school with. It's home base, and I had a great business opportunity to work with the people at Stephens. I get a thrill every time I land in Little Rock."
These days, Clark lands at the airport a lot, returning from trips around the country to talk to politicos and decide about a presidential run.
He is gaining attention.
A week ago, Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern said his members weren't ready to make a commitment beyond the current crop of nine Democrats. Stern said he wanted to wait and see if Clark entered the race.
Still, critics say it is too late for Clark to enter the race and even hard er for him to raise money. But some politics watchers don't rule Clark out.
He'd "bring tools to the table," said Bill Paschall, a Little Rock political consultant who has managed races in the South. "He has high exposure and name ID. What he has to have is money and organization for credibility.
"By getting in late, he's lowered expectations. If he doesn't win New Hampshire or Iowa, he can say it's because he got in late. But he has to have organization to get through it all."
But Clark seems to have the backing of one powerful Democrat.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Bill Clinton said there were two rising stars in the Democratic Party - his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Clark. And Clark has caught the eye of Little Rock Clintonites.
"Wes Clark is a centrist who can win in November 2004," said Skip Rutherford, president of Clinton Foundation and a Clark friend. "Some of the Republicans who are now criticizing him were just a few months ago trying to recruit him. Democrats and Republicans alike know that Gen. Clark is smart, has proven leadership experience and that he certainly understands foreign policy and national security.
"General Clark very well could end up being George Bush's worst nightmare."
Suzi Parker is a Little Rock-based freelance writer who has written about Wesley Clark for The Economist and U.S. News and World Report.