Wesley Clark And The Politics Of First Impressions
Wesley Clark And The Politics Of First Impression
From Undernews – By Sam Smith
In today's prorev.com feedback column there are a number of letters critical of our coverage of Wesley Clark. They arrive just as your editor is finishing Gore Vidal's 'Washington,' a novel written in 1967.
One of the characters is a faux war hero who is elected senator despite the journalistic efforts of Peter Sanford, who at one point asks the senator being replaced: "Why do you think what I wrote about Clay had so little effect? It was the truth and it was devastating."
"Apparently not. In any case the public is impressed only by winners."
"But winners have become losers. They've even gone to jail."
"But to say that Clay was a false hero. . . "
"And I proved that he was. . . "
". . . only confuses people who have already accepted him as what they think he is, a genuine hero, the subject of an extraordinary amount of publicity. That's all that matters, the large first impression. You cannot change it, short of a public trial."
We practice these days the politics of first impressions. This is the reverse of older politics in which success was based on lengthy, serial impressions. Here's how I described it in 'Shadows of Hope:'
"Politics used to be about remembrance. The best politicians were those who remembered and were remembered the most -- the most people, the littlest favors, the smallest slights, the best anecdotes tying one's politics to the common memory of the constituency.
"Politics was also about gratitude. Politicians were always thanking people, "without whom" whatever under discussion could not have happened. . . Above all, politics was about relationships. The politician grew organically out of a constituency and remained rooted to it as long as incumbency lasted.
"Today, we increasingly elect people about whom we have little to remember, to whom we owe no gratitude and with whom we have no relationship except that formed during the great carnie show we call a campaign. Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson spoke for many contemporary politicians when he answered a question about his memories of Thanksgiving Day football games by saying, 'Memories? That's not my style.'"
Wesley Clark is the latest manifestation of the politics of first impressions. The job of the Review, however, is not to foster the latest myth, report only things that support readers' hopes, or - in the words of Russell Baker - serve as a megaphone for frauds. If you want that, go turn on your TV.
Our job is to tell you, as best we can, what the hell is going on. Unfortunately, the facts about Clark simply do not fit the fantasy that has quickly developed around him. This is not a revelation for me. I have been following Clark ever since a high Clinton administration official told me during the Bosnian business what a problem the guy was to all around him. I would subsequently learn that one reason these people were around him was that Richard Holbrooke told them to be there, to reduce the chances of Clark saying something stupid to the press.
Of course, one of the reasons political fantasies are so popular is because the Democratic Party is running low on appealing reality. The party, as a political institution, disintegrated under Clinton, with extraordinary numbers of seats lost at every level from the Senate to the statehouses. If the party were strong, it might today be sharply divided between its conservative and liberal wing but it would not suffer from the embarrassment that the name that does best in polls against Bush is someone named "Unknown." The last thing the party would have to do is hope that a general it doesn't know anything about will fool others as much as he has it.
In Clark's case, the people who are skeptical include a surprising number of professional colleagues both in and out of the military. In fact, I can't recall another instance in which a general has attracted such unenthusiasm from those who worked with him (or as much as they apparently could).
One of the problems is that there are a declining number of people of this country with military experience and thus an increasing number of people - including journalists - who are susceptible of having their heads turned by a few stars and medals. For someone like myself, who served as an aide to an admiral and worked closely with three captains, flag officers are just typical humans in atypical dress. Some, like my boss, are exceptionally talented. Some are fools. And it helps to be able to spot the difference.
My first real appreciation of how difficult this was becoming came as the city of Washington fell woozily for a new school superintendent who was a general. To me it was quickly apparent that the man was an incompetent blowhard, but it was impossible to convince many of this. Eventually, however, reality raised its ugly head and the general was gone.
One sensible way to look at Clark is to figuratively undress him and garb him in civvies. What is it that then that makes him so appealing?
Regardless of how you feel about their politics, Dean, Gephardt and Lieberman have consistent, seriously conceived policies, an integrity of philosophy and purpose, and a record of others having worked with them and thought well of the experience. Clark does not and those who ignore this are casting a part for dreams rather than for reality.
- SAM SMITH, Editor, The Progressive Review
DON PELTON, PALO ALTO, CA - I would normally defer entirely to your view of Clark, except that I'm impressed by two tantalizing possibilities: (1) Clark could wipe the floor with Bush on the patriotism/foreign policy issue; (2) Clark talks like a progressive
Like a lot of people, I'm mostly driven by a passionate desire to fire Bush, so I'll support whichever candidate I believe can accomplish that, providing that candidate also represents a significant improvement over Bush in terms of values and policies. After being a lifelong Democrat, I had my idealistic Last Hurrah in 2000 by voting Green, a decision which I don't regret, but which I will unequivocally not repeat in 2004 (unless the Greens suddenly put up a candidate who could plausibly beat Bush).
If Clark has a fatal flaw that would make him either a bad president and/or unable to beat Bush, I want to hear about it. I've not yet committed to him. I'm merely interested.
But so far, it seems to me, the criticisms of Clark which you've printed in the Progressive Review have been vague and non-specific personality allusions by other Pentagon officials. I have heard that Clark was not well-liked among many of his colleagues in the Pentagon. I've also heard that most of those same colleagues would support him for president in a heartbeat.
RAMONA MOORMANN - I have purchased and read three of your books with great interest and subscribed to your paper newsletter for a time. Also, I read your daily news and appreciate it. As a co-founder of Southwest Michigan Greens and with Green value leanings, I am in agreement with most of your beliefs. I voted my conscience and voted for Ralph Nader in the last election believing that there is very little difference between the Republicans and Democrats. I was wrong, there is with the group of Republicans now running our country. We are now victims of the destruction the Republican control of our country has brought about.
I am a 75 year old woman who has been a political activist for most of my life, always with the hope that we could bring about a better world. Now I despair thinking about what the future will hold for my children and grandchildren if Bush is elected in 2004.
I once again have hope now that more people are seeing through Bush & Company's agenda and the Democrats have gained some gumption. I am extremely puzzled about why you, as a progressive, are attempting to crucify Wesley Clark. It seems to me that the most crucial action we must now take is to support and elect almost anyone, but Bush.
I am amazed and very disappointed that you seem to be buying into the mainstream media's attacks on Clark and suggest that you try to listen to what many people who also have a great deal of knowledge and wisdom are saying. They are being responsible and exposing the lies being told about Clark. I trust that you do realize that Clark's entry as a Presidential candidate has put fear in Bush & Company. It seems to me that this is way too early and irresponsible to be so strongly lambasting anyone who may have a chance to unseat Bush.
I wonder where and what your priorities are?
PAUL - I don't know much about Clark yet, but you must be staying up nights finding these anti-Clark pieces. Now, now. . . just because the Clintons like him doesn't mean you have to be obsessive.
JONATHAN LUNDELL - On the Clark/Kennedy analogy, I've heard it made before, but not in a complimentary way. McCarthy did the heavy lifting, single-handedly creating a competitive race against Johnson. Once the president was on the ropes, Kennedy somewhat opportunistically entered the race. The analogy is fairly clear. Dean criticized Bush and his policies when Bush and his policies were very popular. He was a large factor in Bush's tumble in the polls. Now that Bush is on the ropes, Clark comes riding to the "rescue".
READER - The reason Clark came out of Europe early was the dirty trick by Shelton. Newsweek says Powell has been similar to Shelton towards Clark for a long time. According to Newsweek Clark is resented among generals for being an intellectual. Not a single military colleague of Clark's showed up at his announcement in Little Rock of his candidacy. Newsweek says the answer is simple; most generals are Republican and they would not show up for that reason.
Evidently, this is my commentary only, the nation has a military underdog, Clark, at a time when generals and the Pentagon are viewed widely by voters as wanting too much money for weapons and for Iraq.