WASHINGTON — Is retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander, an erratic liar? He is if you believe the spin coming out of the conservative hit machines that cranked into action as soon as Clark announced his intention to run for president as a Democrat.
Success in politics sometimes comes down to which side can tell the most compelling story -- and, even more important, which side can tell it first.
That simple truth has triggered a manic, win-at-all-costs drive to "define" Clark in the worst terms possible so that he won't be able to knock the president out of the White House next November. In his newsletter last week, Washington's highly respected political handicapper Charlie Cook correctly noted that "for the White House, it is particularly important that Clark's credibility be impeached as soon as possible." The White House and its media allies clearly agree.
Before Clark's entry into the race a little more than a week ago, there were nine other candidates in the Democratic field. But none had garnered even a fraction of the invective Clark is now receiving -- not even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a front-running candidate whose politics put him decidedly at odds with President Bush.
Why are conservatives so hot and bothered? The answer -- and the threat Clark poses -- couldn't be clearer. For the last two years the White House has been able to maintain high rates of public approval even in the face of a rocky economy at home and a breakdown in the country's key alliances abroad.
A key factor in Bush's popularity was the public's trust that he was the right man to keep the country strong abroad and safe from future terrorist attacks at home. That perception allowed Republicans to defy historical precedent and a soft economy to win the 2002 midterm elections handily.
Since July, however, a mix of economic woes and rising doubts about the operation in Iraq has battered the president's standing in the polls -- he now stands at about 50%, the break-even point in public approval ratings. The one big advantage President Bush still has working for him is the simple fact that a great many Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats to keep the country safe in dangerous times.
But make the Democratic standard-bearer a retired four-star general who helped keep the fractious NATO alliance together while conducting a successful war in the Balkans and that could all change rapidly. That means Clark has to be destroyed now, before he gets a chance to make his own first impression. And thus the fusillade streaming out of talk radio, Drudge, Fox News and various other media outlets with a conservative bent.
One of the main attacks began last week in the mainstream press when Howard Fineman, Newsweek's chief political correspondent, led an article on Clark with the claim that the retired general had decided to become a Democrat only after being rebuffed in his efforts to enter the Bush administration. According to Colorado's Republican governor, Bill Owens, and one of his cronies, Marc Holtzman, Clark told them during a chance encounter at a January conference in Davos, Switzerland, that he had wanted to become a Republican but had decided against it when White House strategist Karl Rove snubbed him.
"I would have been a Republican," Owens and Holtzman say Clark told them, "if Karl Rove had returned my phone calls." When asked, Clark told Fineman that the remark was meant in jest. But Holtzman assured Fineman that Clark was in deadly earnest: "Clark wasn't joking. We were really shocked." Who knows what Clark said in this exchange? But it doesn't take a leap of imagination to see that two high-profile Republicans -- both of whom have close ties to the president and his chief political advisor, Rove -- might have some reason to frame the exchange in the most unflattering light possible.
But it didn't end there.
Almost immediately, the conservative Weekly Standard picked up the ball and got an unprecedented bit of assistance from the White House. At the Standard's request, the White House completed a quick audit of Rove's phone logs for the last two years and found that Clark had never placed any calls to Rove's White House office.