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PAC man

Financed by his own private PAC, retired Gen. Wesley Clark is stumping the country for the Democratic ticket and perhaps a future place in Washington for himself.


In a day when retired Gen. Wesley Clark was shuttling from made-for-television political rallies to fancy fund-raising receptions, the most poignant moment came in a hotel hallway, where about 15 supporters of his failed presidential bid had gathered to meet him. Pressed into a corner and accepting the kind words offered in his direction, Clark suddenly became nostalgic and strikingly more personal than he had been in any of his previous discussions. "A few days before [the primary election in] New Hampshire, I got a phone call from Eli Segal," Clark recalls. (Segal was his campaign manager.) "He said, 'You are leading in Tennessee, you are leading in Oklahoma. If you hold your own in New Hampshire, you can knock [Howard] Dean off and go from there.' " Clark pauses wistfully, and seems to plunge deep into thought. After a long awkward silence, he snaps out of it. "Things change," he says, and smiles. "I learned that the measure of success is not 'Can you win?' It's 'Can you get your ideas adopted?' " That seems to be the governing philosophy for Clark these days. Instead of removing himself from the national political discourse after dropping out of the presidential race, he formed WesPAC, a political action committee focused on national security and foreign policy issues, which are areas of expertise for the former Army officer and NATO supreme commander. He has maintained a vigorous presence in the media as a commentator on those topics, and he has penned articles for publications like The New York Times, the New Republic, and Washington Monthly. Clark also finds time to tend to his consulting firm, Wesley K. Clark and Associates. It is a frenetic lifestyle. On the day the Arkansas Times shadowed Clark, for 10 straight hours, he appeared on the Fox News Channel for a morning interview about the power transfer in Iraq before traveling to Missouri to attend events in behalf of Nancy Farmer, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. After settling into his seat on a private jet for the trip from Little Rock to Springfield, Clark discussed business transactions on his cell phone, and then turned his attention to the press clippings that the John Kerry presidential campaign sends to him every morning. Kerry was still six days away from announcing his choice of John Edwards as his vice presidential running-mate, so many observers believed Clark's busy schedule was part of a thinly veiled lobbying effort to join Kerry on the national Democratic ticket. Clark, however, insisted that his involvement in the political arena was motivated by broader concerns, and his staff later pointed out that Clark was the first surrogate to stump for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. (Clark was on a plane when Kerry publicly gave Edwards the nod, and he appeared at a New Hampshire veterans event in their behalf one hour later.) Nevertheless, he is unsure whether he will continue to remain active beyond this election cycle. "I have no commitments long term," Clark said. "I am thrilled to have the opportunity to help people who say 'Please come and help us.' … I'll definitely work through November." Dollars and sense Technically speaking, the vehicle through which Clark helps other politicians is WesPAC. Usually, political action committees (PACs) raise money that is then contributed to various campaigns to engender good will for the cause or personality that the PAC was created to promote. Clark has plenty of money at his disposal; so far he has raised over $300,000. However, WesPAC had not made any financial distributions as of the reporting period that ended June 30. Instead, WesPAC is allocating its resources toward staff salaries, travel, and its website. In other words, WesPAC is spending money on Wes. That said, probably the best asset Clark can employ in behalf of other Democrats is his knowledge and, in some cases, his presence. "Him being here is a great boost for the stature and credibility of my race," Farmer said. "When you are the challenger, and a former presidential candidate and four-star general is coming to the state to endorse you, it helps." In addition to his reputation and experience, Clark is trying to offer a set of policy options that can give the Democratic party a foothold in national security issues. "After 9/11 I got a call from a Republican friend in Arkansas," Clark recalled. "He asked me, 'Which party do you think the American people trust to take care of the country in a crisis? It's the Republicans.' "Well, I think that the Democrats would have done better handling the war on terror than the Republicans." With statements like these, Clark's approach seems designed to not only provide substance to Democratic rhetoric about national security, but confidence as well. Farmer is a former state legislator and the current Missouri state treasurer, but with Clark at her side she spoke with authority on foreign policy, which was the focus of the day's events. In her stump speech at the political rallies, Farmer echoed the themes that Clark has been advancing: President Bush rushed to war; we need to secure the peace in Iraq, and then we need to leave; we need more international troops in Iraq to share the burden. Offstage, Farmer confirmed that her talking points were worked out among senior staff for her and Clark. If, as Clark said, WesPAC reflects his interest in a "strong Democratic Party that can deal with complex issues of foreign policy," then his success may be measured in the number of candidates who, like Nancy Farmer, adopt his philosophy. Catching the political bug The standard criticism about Clark's presidential bid was that after more than 30 years in the military, he was slow to acquire the skills that are necessary for success in politics. Clark did not address that specific complaint in talking with the Times, but he emphasized his comfort with, and preference for, the life of a politician. "[Like politics], military life involved a lot of travel, and meeting a lot of people," Clark said. "But the scope for innovation, creativity, and self-expression is so much greater in politics." Clark's newfound political dexterity was on display in yet another St. Louis back hallway. After a rally at St. Louis University, three labor union activists followed Clark and Farmer backstage for a photograph. After some small talk, Clark pointedly engaged the men with the earnest statement, "Labor unions are important." He then took over the conversation, and convincingly demonstrated his understanding and empathy with lines like: "China is not a fair competitor." "We have got to get wages up." "How do we get unions to vote for Kerry?" "Family values are about more than abortion." "We're not going to let them pull the 'guns, God, and gays' thing, are we?" For someone who did not declare his party affiliation until he announced his candidacy for president less than a year ago, Clark sounds like a committed lifelong Democrat. At one fund-raising event, he said that the country is being run by "extremists" who made foreign policy partisan, and who wanted President Clinton to fail. His most reliable applause line, used during all of his Missouri appearances, came in the form of advice to those gathered to hear him speak. Clark would say that because the nation is about evenly divided between those who like President Bush and those who hate him, the Democrats cannot win by making the election personal. Instead, Clark would recommend, "Say you like Bush, but you think he is slightly over his pay grade." Despite his appeal to Democratic audiences, Clark's military experience and Southern background give him traction in areas that are more conservative. He is one of the few prominent Democrats asked to campaign for Martin Frost, the most senior Southern Democratic congressman who is locked in a difficult re-election struggle as a result of the recent unprecedented mid-cycle redistricting in Texas. "Because General Clark is a recognized and accomplished military leader who bravely served our country, he is held in high regard by everyone in North Texas," Frost told the Times. "I was proud to accept his help, and I appreciated his coming to Texas on my behalf." Clark has played a similar role in the re-election effort of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, as well as in the U.S. Senate campaign of Alaska governor Tony Knowles. Unlike other national party standard-bearers like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, or even Kerry, Clark is a Democrat considered acceptable by traditionally Republican constituencies. Scheduling an appointment? For that reason, Clark supporters continue to insist that Kerry should have chosen the retired general to join him on the Democratic ticket. Now that the decision has been made, there is speculation that Clark will be a top contender for defense secretary or national security adviser if Kerry wins in November. Clark is guarded about his ambitions and the prospect of being appointed to a Cabinet-level position. "Public service is what this is about," he said. "It is an honor to be asked to contribute ideas and thoughts. There are different ways to contribute to the debate." Clark also says that he and his wife, Gert, love living in Arkansas, and that he plans to remain in the state. "I always assumed that I would go where the best job opportunity was," he mused. "I never thought I would be able to go home." Of course, it didn't take long for Clark to plunge into national politics after he settled in Arkansas, and he calls his presidential campaign "the best experience of my life." After getting a taste of the fame and influence that comes with joining the upper echelon of political figures, it may be difficult for Clark to return to a normal life in Little Rock. This dynamic is obvious to anyone who spends time with Clark. For instance, Nancy Farmer went out of her way to remind supporters in Springfield and St. Louis that the Senate confirms Cabinet appointments, and everyone in the audience understood her point and responded approvingly. She then turned to Clark and asked, "Wouldn't it be great to be in Washington together?" Clark said nothing, but smiled broadly, looking straight ahead over the crowd.

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