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Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark: Campaign ‘Times’

September 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And then there were ten. General Wesley Clark, the former commander of NATO, formally entered the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination today. His late entry into the already crowded field promises to unsettle a race which has lately come to be dominated, in crowds, money, and headlines, by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Here to tell us a little more about the new candidate, and his potential effect on the race to unseat President Bush, is Katherine Seelye of the “New York Times.” Hi, Kit.


GWEN IFILL: We were just talking about a hurricane here. In political terms, is that what Wesley Clark was today?

KATHARINE SEELYE: He was I think on the tornado level — or for Californians on Richter, pretty heavy Richter Scale. He comes into a race where at a time when President Bush is looking fairly vulnerable, and at a time when there are huge numbers of undecided voters.

GWEN IFILL: Who is General Clark, I told you the thumbnail sketch that he used to run NATO, but other than that, who is he?

KATHARINE SEELYE: Well, he’s, he is chiefly a military man, and that’s what he’s trying to get across to voters, that his candidacy is really not about issues, as much as it is about his resume and about his experience as a leader in the military. He was first class in, first in his class at West Point, he was supreme allied commander of NATO during the Kosovo war. Since he retired from NATO — actually he was more or less kicked out by President Clinton, he has been an investment banker in Little Rock.

GWEN IFILL: So why now, why has he taken so long to make up his mind?

KATHARINE SEELYE: Well, that’s a really interesting question and I’m not sure anyone knows. There’s a lot of speculation that he might actually just be getting in the race to improve his chances of becoming vice president, which would have allowed him a little more leeway in time. But it’s not really clear why he waited this long. He may have been, as a military commander, sizing up the field, and deciding that he’s the most qualified person, which he says he is.

GWEN IFILL: It’s a big field that he’s sizing up, nine other people running. They’ve already been out there raising money, making personal appearances, shaking every hand in Iowa and New Hampshire no doubt. How will he be able to compete?

KATHARINE SEELYE: Well, this is the interesting question, nobody really knows. But there are a lot of theories about what he’s going to do to the actual race and the best guess is that he takes a little bit of support from everybody. You can go through the candidates and see how that would happen. Looking at Howard Dean, General Clark and Dr. Dean appeal to the same constituencies, and they offer voters a lot of the same things. They’re both presenting themselves as non-Washington, fresh face –.

GWEN IFILL: Anti-war?

KATHARINE SEELYE: Anti-war, certainly, non-politician. General Clark comes in with obviously much stronger credentials as far as the military goes. But Dr. Dean has experience as almost twelve years as governor of Vermont, dealing with a lot of issues that people are going to be questioning General Clark about very intensely in that he has yet to provide details on.

GWEN IFILL: You just raised an interesting point which is General Clark has never held any kind of elective office, not dog catcher, not president of the senior class, nothing, right?


GWEN IFILL: So how does he have the temperament is the term I’m looking for.

KATHARINE SEELYE: This is the big unknown, and temperament can strike people in different ways. A lot of people have said Dr. Dean doesn’t have the temperament, and when he is questioned about that and comes back fairly assertively, some people like that and say bully for you. Other people say whoa, this guy is too hot headed to have his finger on the button. General Clark has been in wars, and that’s a pretty good test, I guess, of a certain kind of temperament, but there are other kinds of temperament, which as you well know get severely tested on the campaign trail. Is he patient enough to sit for the same questions over and over again from reporters? Is he, will he listen to his advisors?

GWEN IFILL: Let’s continue the hurricane analogy for a moment. How are the other campaigns reacting, are they putting up the plywood as it was?

KATHARINE SEELYE: I think they’re getting nervous, of course you know the price of plywood has gone up substantially in the latest rush, and I think people are going to be, some of the candidates, they just don’t know what to expect.

GWEN IFILL: He’s the only southerner in the race, and along with John Kerry he’s the other bigger elected, I mean military guy. Does, do John Edwards and John Kerry have a lot in particular they’re worried about?

KATHARINE SEELYE: Well, I think both of them have, John Kerry has made his chief selling point his service in Vietnam, his experience in foreign affairs. No one can doubt that General Clark, who also served in Vietnam also has a silver star and a purple heart. And the experience as a general can trump John Kerry’s Vietnam experience. Similarly, John Edwards of course is a southerner, General Clark as a southerner can lay claim to that base as well. And plus, interestingly, and this has not really been brought out so much, but he has a pretty strong commitment to civil rights. He grew up in Little Rock, when the schools were closed he went to school out of state. He supported the affirmative action case on behalf of the University of Michigan, and he has already putting together some black support that is very interesting in light of the fact that there are two other black candidates in the race. He’s gotten Charlie Rangel’s endorsement already, which is significant.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, Kit, the last Little Rock Democrat we saw making a run for the White House in the Democratic ticket got it and that’s Bill Clinton. A lot of Bill Clinton’s old advisors seem to be jumping on this band wagon, is there a Clinton hand in this?

KATHARINE SEELYE: The Clinton people say officially no. But the president has told friends that he thinks there are two stars in the Democratic Party, one is his wife Hillary, the senator from New York, and the other is General Clark.

GWEN IFILL: I think that says it all. Kit Seelye, thanks for joining us.

KATHARINE SEELYE: Thank you, Gwen.