Respond to this Article March 2004

All the General's Men

Wesley Clark's disappointed army in Washington.

By Christina Larson

On the night of the New Hampshire primaries, Howard Park, the Clark campaign's D.C. grassroots coordinator, pulled up a stool to the counter of the Grand Slam bar in Washington and ordered a pint.

A former lobbyist, turned bookseller in his early 40s, he was wearing a navy sports jacket with a pin that read "All Patriot, No Act" over a "Draft Clark" t-shirt and slightly rumpled khakis. It was just past 7pm, an hour before the polls would close in the Granite State, but exit polls predicting the night's outcome had been on the Web all day. Though Clark would remain in the race for two weeks yet, Park's hopes had already begun to dim. He tucked his tennis shoes under one rung of the bar stool and sat very still.

"I always thought we were going to get a lot of the McCain voters in New Hampshire," he said. "It looks like I was wrong."

A young man in a grey sweater vest who had just arrived at that night's gathering of Clark supporters bounced up then to ask, "Have we heard anything yet? Any poll results?"

"Yeah, we've heard a few."

Not taking his cue from the tone of Park's voice, the second man repeated the question. "So how's it looking?"

Park shook his head. "Third or fourth."

For much of the Democratic primary season, it was an article of faith that if you were young, professional, liberal, lived in a big city, and had tuned in to the race before New Year's Day, you probably backed Howard Dean. In Washington, D.C., however, much of that demographic, like Park, gravitated straight to Wesley Clark. Months before "the general," as his supporters called him, actually entered the race, many of the young Democrats populating Washington's law firms, think tanks, and legislative offices were abuzz with talk of the former NATO commander. The "Draft Clark" movement, which collected pledge donations and sponsored TV ads urging the general to run, was launched here last March. When Clark announced his candidacy in September, armies of Washingtonians called the Arkansas headquarters--or drove to Little Rock--looking for ways to join the campaign. In November, the Clark campaign found that the most new donations nationwide had come from the 20009 ZIP code--which includes the D.C. neighborhoods of Adams-Morgan and DuPont Circle, home to denizens of urbane young professionals.

To many of his idealistic but politically savvy supporters, the logic of the general's campaign had seemed perfect. Their candidate was the combo platter, with John Kerry's good looks and purple heart, John Edwards's charisma and Southern roots, and Howard Dean's outsider appeal. Clark's entry into the race last fall was greeted with a flurry of media coverage, and, in polls of likely voters, he debuted near the top of the list of preferred candidates. The stars seemed to have aligned. But as time wore on, the general struggled for a message, and infighting among his professional staff over strategy meant that the grassroots saw fewer glimpses of the dynamic Clark they believed could be president--and more of a slightly mechanical speaker making stilted pronouncements about "leadership." Though Clark would later win the primary in Oklahoma and place second in a handful of other states, he never achieved the front-runner status that his credentials suggested he might.

By late January, the fact that Clark's campaign hadn't lived up to the candidate's early promise was beginning to disappoint the great number of Washingtonians who had placed such tremendous hope in the four-star general from Bill Clinton's hometown.

As Park told me, "The truth is, we'd like a slightly different result than we have tonight, but it is what it is." He rubbed his eyes under his glasses, then added, "We've come a long way. A couple of months ago, we didn't have a Clark campaign, a Web site, a movement." Park, who had campaigned for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Gary Hart in 1984, said that no one had sparked his political fire for over a decade until Wesley Clark came along. After a moment thinking, he smiled again. "It's been very exciting, especially at the beginning."

He had come to watch the New Hampshire returns that night among friends at a sports bar in the basement of Washington's downtown Grand Hyatt. The gathering was sponsored by C Company, a network of the city's pro-Clark young professionals. Park and I headed to the back of the bar where a crowd of 50 or so supporters had gathered just as the night's headliners--a handful of congressmen who had endorsed the general--began to speak.

Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.) gave a rallying speech of sorts, reminding those who had trudged through the Washington snowfall to come that night that Bill Clinton hadn't won Iowa or New Hampshire either.

"Wes Clark can still become president, but he can't if we don't fight, if we don't believe he can," he said. "So stay involved with this campaign."

As we waited for the New Hampshire returns to roll in, Robert Housman, a blond thirty-something lawyer who had served as the assistant director for strategic planning in the Clinton drug czar's office, remarked, "I thought I would watch this race from the sidelines ... But then I heard a rumor in our circles that Clark might run--former Clinton people have a pretty tight network, and news travels quickly." Housman's hands cut through the air for emphasis as he told me the story of how he had called the general's cell phone the day before Clark's announcement to offer his help in organizing several D.C.-area fundraisers and bringing other Clinton administration alums into the fold.

Like other Clark supporters--legislative aides who tried to finagle time off to work for the campaign, consultants and college students who traveled to the early primary states, and lawyers who admit to posting fewer billable hours since Clark announced--Housman's in-volvement had been poignant. "When you first start building things, you go through fits and starts. Most campaigns do this over many months. For us, it was compressed and happened under a massive spotlight." Housman raised his eyebrows in a knowing sort of way. "All the highs and lows were quicker and came faster together."

The two big-screen TVs that had been flashing muted images of Wolf Blitzer, James Carville, Paul Begala, and Jeff Greenfield suddenly posted the first returns from New Hampshire, then showing Clark coming in fourth behind Edwards. A few people groaned.

Some speculated that the die had been cast when Clark's team opted out of Iowa, where voters who didn't want Dean rallied to either a war hero or a Southerner--never mind that Clark was both, he wasn't on the ballot in the Hawkeye state. As Park told me earlier, "I think it was a mistake to drop out of Iowa. But that's a bit like playing Monday morning quarterback now."

As the night wore on, a couple of folks hurried home to waiting spouses. "My poor husband, I never see him," said Stephanie Leger Short, a pretty lawyer with her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, as she gathered her coat and gloves. Short, a co-organizer of the night's C Company event, had first seen Clark at a New Democrat Network event even before he entered the fray, and it was political love at first sight. "When he talked, I thought, he needs to run, this man should run for president," she explained in her Louisiana drawl. "But John Kerry," she said of the night's front-runner, "Kerry can never win in Louisiana. You know how Southern Democrats are."

Several of the younger supporters pulled up chairs to the tables nearest the TVs and ordered another round. A little later, the tally of Clark's votes climbed just above Edwards's, putting the general in third place, though still well behind Kerry and Dean. That uptick drew the evening's biggest round of cheering. A few of the more optimistic folks were soon talking about their next potential campaign road-trip.

"Are you guys in for South Carolina?" one twenty-something brunette asked a group of a half-dozen fellow travelers crowded around a table.

"South Carolina?" one lawyer, who had been knocking on doors in New Hampshire two weeks earlier, considered. "This weekend?"

"Oh, come on, you're in," she pleaded, slightly flirtatiously.

"Maybe. Well, sure."

"You're so in."

The campaign--and the candidate's promise--was too good to let go of just yet.

Christina Larson is the managing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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