Winning With Wesley: Clark, the Wendell Willkie of the 2004 Campaign
In the spring of 1940, the world was at war. Japan had invaded China in 1937, and Germany had invaded Poland in 1939, prompting the French and the British to declare war. The big domestic political issues in the United States as the 1940 election approached were: what position should the United States take with respect to the belligerents; and, would President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seek a third term?
George Washington, the nation's first president, had set a precedent by declining to serve a third term. This two term limit, though not written into law, was considered a basic rule of American politics. No president, it was thought, would be so arrogant to consider himself superior to the great Washington and break the founding father's two term limit tradition.
The mere thought of a third term sent Republicans, who already hated Roosevelt for the socialistic New Deal legislation, into a frenzy. Roosevelt was accused of wanting to become a dictator, much the same way that Democrats today cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the presidency of George W. Bush because of the way he won the electoral vote count in spite of a popular vote loss of over half a million votes.
The Republicans faced a problem finding a viable candidate to face Roosevelt in 1940. Clearly FDR was vulnerable, but years of catastrophic losses at the polls during the great economic depression of the 1930's left the Republicans with a small stable of presidential contenders. Also, the mainstream of the Republican Party was somewhat isolationist and dubious about American involvement in the war in Europe.
So, while Roosevelt could be defeated, it was clear to the leadership of the Republican Party that he could not be defeated by an isolationist in foreign policy.
Win With Willkie
So in 1940, the Republicans nominated an erstwhile Democrat, a utility bond lawyer from Indiana who had never run before for public office, Wendell Willkie. Willkie was nominated by a draft movement, crafted in secret on Madison Avenue, and fueled with an avalanche of telegrams and letters from "ordinary Americans" which, in the end, turned out to have been substantially manufactured by a public relations organization.
Willkie's slogan was, "Win With Willkie," and many Republicans, blinded by their hatred of Roosevelt, abandoned their political principles to embrace a candidate who could win. Willkie lost in the end because he was a conscientious person who basically supported Roosevelt's foreign policy of supporting the allies in Europe.
For the 2004 election, many Democratic leaders are turning to Wesley Clark, a retired General with an impressive resume. First in his class at West Point, a Rhodes Scholar, combat wounded in Vietnam, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe who fought the winning war in Kosovo, critical of the Iraq war, progressive on domestic social issues, Clark seems to many the perfect candidate to beat George Bush. Win with Wesley could well be his slogan, but for the historical overtones.
Clark is even spoken of as another Eisenhower, a comparison Clark himself does nothing to dispel in his book, WAGING MODERN WAR.
Apart from Willkie's obvious drawbacks of never having run for public office or having an independent record of public achievement on which to be held accountable and on which to campaign, Clark has other difficulties.
Although both Clark and Eisenhower were Supreme Allied Commanders in Europe, they are very different, indeed opposites. Whereas Clark went to West Point by choice, as a career move, spurning tempting offers from other colleges and universities, Eisenhower went to West Point because it was the only way he could get a college education. Ike gave in to the blandishments to run for president because he thought it would save the two party system after 20 years of continuous Democratic rule. No one even knew to what party Eisenhower belonged. Leaders in both parties offered the nomination to Eisenhower. President Truman offered to run as Eisenhower's Vice-President if he would run as a Democrat.
Ike was a man of peace, in spite of his military career. In May 1960, when the summit scheduled with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev collapsed in the wake of the U-2 spy plane scandal caused by the shooting down of Francis Gary Powers, Eisenhower is quoted as lamenting that his years in the White House, "were all for nothing." Ike had been scheduled to visit Moscow. In his memoirs, Ike refers to "the presidential years" without much enthusiasm.
While Ike hated politics, Clark sought and received a White House Internship in 1975, when Gerald Ford was President. Clark was one of 14 White House interns chosen from 2,307 applicants. He worked as a special assistant to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.
While Clark was working at the OMB, the assistant to the President for White House operations, commonly known as the president's Chief of Staff, was none other than Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld's deputy was Dick Cheney. It is unlikely to the point of impossibility that the three men, Clark, Rumsfeld and Cheney did not work together when all three were involved in such pivotal tasks within the Ford White House.
Anyway, mid-way through Clark's internship, Rumsfeld became his boss when he was appointed Secretary of Defense and Cheney became Ford's Chief of Staff. As a career army officer, Clark worked for Cheney again when the latter was Secretary of Defense in George H. W. Bush's administration, and Clark was training troops for the 1991 Gulf War.
Wesley Clark is the Wendell Willkie of the 2004 campaign. He is a public relations dream precisely because he is a blank slate. He spent a lifetime promoting himself in the military where he, as he admits himself, made a few enemies. Clark is the Democrat to ensure Bush's re-election. Progressive Democrats will swallow their principles and support the former general because "he can win."
Once nominated, not only will the neophyte candidate leave almost no daylight between himself and George Bush over the war in Iraq (how could he, it was fought by the people with whom he worked for over 30 years, and the people he trained who fought it, and his doctrine and strategy that was used to fight it), but all the negative information about him that is currently hidden in the pentagon will come pouring out before the election.
George C. Marshall, one of the truly great military leaders in American history, did not vote. He did not think an army officer, who must obey the commands of the elected commander in chief, should participate in politics in any way. As an institution, the armed forces have a vested interest in seeing that people do not use their military careers as stepping stones to elected political office. Political generals, as a breed, are pretty roundly and deservedly loathed. Political generals build their political careers on American as well as enemy corpses. And even though Clark was wounded in Vietnam, he served there in 1970, when the war was winding down, rather than going with his graduating class from West Point in 1966, when the war was popular, heating up and his classmates were being killed in droves. Clark spent the most lethal part of the war as a Rhodes Scholar studying philosophy in England.
Clark will not win on his domestic agenda because presidential elections are about foreign policy. There is only one commander in chief. Economic and social problems can be finessed by changes in Congress, the Governors and the state legislatures. The 2004 election is going to be a battle to see if the people will be allowed to nominate a candidate opposed to the war that they rejected in 2000. The Democrats are as much responsible for the debacle in Iraq as the Republicans. Many Democrats in the Congress supported the push to war (and Clark said he probably would have voted for it if he had been in Congress) and Gore refused to fight for his own victory all the way through the electoral college, thereby legitimizing the Presidency of George W. Bush, who ran on the war platform of pulling out of the Middle East peace process and toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Just as the election of Abraham Lincoln was the political cause of the southern attack on Fort Sumpter, the stolen election by George W. Bush was the political trigger for the September 11 attacks. Americans and the media might have overlooked the Middle East war mongering in Bush's campaign speeches, but the Arabs were paying very close attention.
The Iraq War is the war the people voted against, but were given anyway thanks to the betrayal of the Democratic Party leadership. Wesley Clark is the warrior in sheep clothing, the loser who can't win, to ensure the United States remains militarily involved in the Middle East for at least a generation.
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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf