I covered the brief excursion that was Wesley Clark’s presidential campaign, which was probably doomed the first day when, under questioning from reporters on his maiden flight, he turned to his press aide and shouted, “Mary, help!”
Clark, a big-time critic of President Bush’s Iraq policy, had stepped in it by saying he probably would have voted for the war resolution.
Later in that 2004 campaign, when some former military leaders denounced the retired general, Clark’s aides wanted to put out his military records, which contained praise from the likes of Al Haig and Colin Powell. Three Washington Post reporters turned down an exclusive that required them to agree in advance to publish a separate story on the records. The documents were given to the New York Times and the Boston Globe, which said no conditions were set.
Clark has always recognized the importance of military reputations, and as the campaign wore on, the former CNN analyst grew more savvy at dealing with the media.
So it couldn’t have been an accident that Clark used an appearance on “Face the Nation” Sunday to strafe John McCain over his Vietnam War record.
“That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded–that wasn’t a wartime squadron. He hasn’t been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn’t seen what it’s like when diplomats come in and say, I don’t know whether we’re going to be able to get this point through or not . . . I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” Clark told Bob Schieffer.
I never imagined, given what McCain endured in North Vietnam, that his own service would become an issue. But then, I didn’t anticipate John Kerry coming under political sniper fire for his Vietnam medals, either.
No one’s saying that being a POW entitles you to the Oval Office or places you above criticism. But Barack Obama frequently prefaces his criticism of McCain with a nod to his honorable service. Which raises the question: What was Wes thinking?
Despite what some bloggers are assuming, Clark was not doing “Face” as an Obama surrogate. Clark was a big Hillary Clinton backer during the primaries — not surprisingly since it was Bill Clinton who made him the NATO commander — and an insider says the campaign didn’t book him on Schieffer or suggest those talking points (though Clark obviously checked in with the team beforehand).
“We of course honor General Clark’s service,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton told me. “In this case we disagree with some of the things he had to say.”
Clark told Dan Abrams on MSNBC he hadn’t been speaking for the campaign, but didn’t back off his remarks.
Keep in mind, as Dick Polman notes, McCain himself has said: “It doesn’t take a lot of talent to intercept a surface-to-air missile with your own airplane.”
The New York Times leads with Obama rejecting Clark’s comment:
“The terse exchanges between the rivals, echoed even more vociferously by their campaign representatives and surrogates, underscored a central question both candidates are grappling with: How do they present themselves as practicing a new kind of politics, while they, and particularly their allies, are still pointing out flaws in each other? . . .
“Mr. Obama’s effort to highlight his American values, delivered in a 30-minute address before a backdrop of flags, was complicated by the comment from General Clark. The war record of Mr. McCain once seemed like an unassailable asset to his presidential bid, but General Clark’s comments on the CBS News program ‘Face the Nation’ — that being shot down in Vietnam was not a qualification to be president — raised the possibility that Mr. McCain’s military record would face scrutiny.”
The conservative blogosphere is on fire. National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez questions whether this is part of a liberal assault:
“If this is a serious strategy on the Left for defeating McCain, Republicans may yet surprise in November. But although others have tried hitting McCain’s military-service record, this Face the Nation story may be more about Democrats finally facing the reality that is the fringe recklessness of Wesley Clark . . .
“Conservatives should not let this Clark moment pass. Barack Obama should distance himself from efforts to dishonor McCain’s military service.”
At the Weekly Standard, John McCormack goes to the history books:
“Clark’s attack is a bit like saying that JFK’s boat getting sunk wasn’t a qualification to become president in 1960. Can you imagine the outrage if someone said that Clark’s getting shot four times in Vietnam didn’t count as a qualification for the presidency?
“Is Clark unaware that McCain won a Silver Star for resisting ‘extreme mental and physical cruelties’ inflicted upon him by his North Vietnamese captors? Or that McCain won the Navy Commendation Medal for declining early release?
“The man that Clark supports, Sen. Obama, routinely refers to McCain’s heroism.
“Shouldn’t Clark apologize personally to McCain? Shouldn’t Obama disavow Clark’s comments?”
Michelle Malkin wants to bust Clark to private:
“If Gen. Wesley Clark had vice presidential aspirations, they went out the window when he opened his mouth and removed any lingering doubt about his idiocy.”
Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey says that Clark “has now made it clear that the Obama strategy is to demean and belittle McCain’s military service — and by extension, military service in general. This will undoubtedly play very well among Obama’s nutcase fringe supporters as well as idiotic fired commanders of NATO, but that’s a mighty thin list of voters.”
On the left, Jon Soltz defends Wesley:
“I don’t see what is so wrong about what General Clark said. And yet, immediately and unsurprisingly, the McCain campaign let loose with a response that expressed shock and dismay. Almost right after that, all of the media was up in arms about how ‘wrong’ this was. Pretty disappointingly, even progressive surrogates couldn’t muster the strength to back up General Clark on TV.
“Why? This wasn’t a swift boating, or any low politics. General Clark called McCain a hero to millions for his sacrifice.”
Americablog’s John Aravosis delivers what I consider a low blow:
“It’s not ‘nice’ to ask the question, but it’s actually a pretty good question. Yes, we all know that John McCain was captured and tortured in Vietnam (McCain won’t let you forget). A lot of people don’t know, however, that McCain made a propaganda video for the enemy while he was in captivity. Putting that bit of disloyalty aside, what exactly is McCain’s military experience that prepares him for being commander in chief? It’s not like McCain rose to the level of general or something. He’s a vet. We get it. But simply being a vet, as laudable as it is, doesn’t really tell you much about someone’s qualifications for being commander in chief. If McCain is going to play the ‘I was tortured’ card every five minutes as a justification for electing him president, then he shouldn’t throw a hissy fit any time any one asks to know more about his military experience.”
First of all, McCain endured the torture–to the point that he can’t raise his arms over his head today–rather than accept an offer of early release proffered because he was an admiral’s son. I don’t see how you criticize him for actions under torture. Second, far from throwing a hissy or any other kind of fit, McCain was restrained in his comments yesterday.
Time’s Joe Klein challenges Clark on the facts, not the propriety:
“Clark is just plain wrong when he says that ‘getting shot down’ doesn’t qualify as foreign policy experience. I think McCain’s Vietnam war experience gives him important perspective on the horrors of war and should never, ever be discounted–even if McCain’s more recent positions have been unduly bellicose. It’s also just really bad manners on Clark’s part, given the suffering McCain endured. I disagree with McCain’s foreign policy positions in the middle east–you may have noticed–but he has traveled widely and, I believe, has worked hard to learn the rest of the world, especially the countries that spun out of the former Soviet Union.”
Talking heads hit McCain for putting one of the Swift Boat attackers on a conference call to defend his Vietnam honor, and there’s this:
“Republican John McCain, who four years ago condemned independent ads challenging Democrat John Kerry’s military record, has accepted nearly $70,000 for his presidential campaign from the top donors of the group behind the attack ads and their relatives, a USA TODAY analysis shows.”
The other big news is the apparent rapprochement between Barack and Bill, with both sides praising their phone call yesterday. (“President Clinton continues to be impressed by Senator Obama . . . “) Hmm . . . I wonder if this knocks down an anonymously sourced report in London’s Telegraph:
“The Telegraph has learned that the former president’s rage is still so great that even loyal allies are shocked by his patronising attitude to Mr Obama, and believe that he risks damaging his own reputation by his intransigence.
“A senior Democrat who worked for Mr Clinton has revealed that he recently told friends Mr Obama could ‘kiss my ass’ in return for his support.”
No confirmation that any kissing took place.
For all the talk about changing positions, the L.A. Times has a fine piece about McCain’s flips and flops:
“The Arizona senator has swerved from one position to another over the years, taking often contradictory stances on the federal government’s role in energy policy. At times he has backed measures to ease restrictions on oil drilling off the coast and in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Other times he has voted to keep them.
“He has championed standards to require that automakers make vehicles more fuel-efficient, yet opposed standards to require that utilities use less fossil fuel by generating more power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.
“McCain has rejected federal tax breaks for renewable energy producers, but backs billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear industry. He has criticized corn-based ethanol for doing ‘nothing to increase our energy independence.’ Yet while campaigning in 2006 in the Midwest corn belt, McCain called ethanol a ‘vital, vital alternative energy source.’ “
Well, if you’re going to get picky about it . . .
And on that subject, the broadest indictment yet of the media’s Obama coverage comes from Charles Krauthammer:
“Normally, flip-flopping presidential candidates have to worry about the press. Not Obama. After all, this is a press corps that heard his grandiloquent Philadelphia speech — designed to rationalize why ‘I can no more disown than I can disown my white grandmother’ — then wiped away a tear and hailed him as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln. Three months later, with Wright disowned, grandma embraced and the great ‘race speech’ now inoperative, not a word of reconsideration is heard from his media acolytes.
“Worry about the press? His FISA flip-flop elicited a few grumbles from lefty bloggers, but hardly a murmur from the mainstream press. Remember his pledge to stick to public financing? Now flush with cash, he is the first general-election candidate since Watergate to opt out. Some goo-goo clean-government types chided him, but the mainstream editorialists who for years had been railing against private financing as hopelessly corrupt and corrupting evinced only the mildest of disappointment . . .
“As public financing is not a principle dear to me, I am hardly dismayed by Obama’s abandonment of it. Nor am I disappointed in the least by his other calculated and cynical repositionings. I have never had any illusions about Obama. I merely note with amazement that his media swooners seem to accept his every policy reversal with an equanimity unseen since the Daily Worker would change the party line overnight — switching sides in World War II, for example — whenever the wind from Moscow changed direction.”
Liberals have a very different view of Obama’s, ah, shifts of position. Let’s give Arianna the floor:
“The Obama campaign is making a very serious mistake. Tacking to the center is a losing strategy. And don’t let the latest head-to-head poll numbers lull you the way they lulled Hillary Clinton in December.
“Running to the middle in an attempt to attract undecided swing voters didn’t work for Al Gore in 2000. It didn’t work for John Kerry in 2004. And it didn’t work when Mark Penn (obsessed with his ‘microtrends’ and missing the megatrend) convinced Hillary Clinton to do it in 2008.
“Fixating on — and pandering to — this fickle crowd is all about messaging tailored to avoid offending rather than to inspire and galvanize. And isn’t galvanizing the electorate to demand fundamental change the raison d’etre of the Obama campaign in the first place?”
Tom Brokaw’s debut on “Meet the Press” draws a less than rave review from Alessandra Stanley:
“Mr. Brokaw, the former ‘Nightly News’ anchor who will host the program until NBC finds a more permanent replacement for Mr. Russert, made a point of breaking with the past; the first segments were not even taped in Mr. Russert’s studio in Washington but at a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association in Wyoming. The majestic snow-capped Jackson Hole setting didn’t provide for a very exciting political debate, but the changes did suggest just how difficult it will be for NBC to revamp a Sunday news program that was so shaped by the personality and passions of its longtime host . . .
“Mr. Brokaw proved himself a seemly caretaker. The emeritus anchor didn’t try to imitate or compete with Mr. Russert, and he kept the mood at a sober but easygoing tempo. Had NBC immediately tapped some of its more junior stars, like David Gregory, Lester Holt or Andrea Mitchell, to fill in so soon, they might have looked like ambitious careerists auditioning to take over while the chair was still warm.
“But in the middle of one of the fiercest and most exciting presidential races in years this ‘Meet the Press’ had a little too much comity.”
“I feel compelled to respond to your assault on Maureen Dowd.
“Your complaint about Maureen seems to be that many supporters of Hillary Clinton found her columns offensive. As a former editorial page editor, I can absolutely assure you that supporters of many, many candidates from both parties have found Maureen’s columns offensive over the years.
“The sharpness of her wit makes her commentary particularly painful to those who are on the receiving end. That’s also why so many readers love her and exactly what The New York Times pays her to do.
“When the public editor laces into an opinion page columnist for making fun of a controversial political figure, it sounds like a suggestion that all of us tone things down. I hope I’m hearing wrong.”