Columns » John Brummett

Wes Clark snubs Bill Halter

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It’s not that anyone had any reason to believe that Wes Clark and Bill Halter were close, or that Clark had any obligation to Halter, or that the general didn’t have every right to prefer Mike Beebe for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The Clark-Halter association had lasted only two or three months, really, when Clark was running for president and Halter was his travel aide. Halter had departed Clark’s employ well before the New Hampshire primary, for reasons not entirely clear but probably related to infighting in what turned out to be a troubled and underachieving campaign.

You hear all kinds of things. All I could get from another aide in Clark’s campaign was that Halter might not be at his best when tired at the end of a long day.

That aside, what Clark did to Halter on Friday night was at least indiscreet, certainly unnecessary and maybe rude. It was a snub, for sure.

The Arkansas Democratic Party, steered into debt by its new chairman, Jason Willett, held a swanky fund-raiser at the multi-terraced home of Mike and Beth Coulson in Little Rock. Terrace guests paid $1,000 apiece. For $10,000, you could get inside and have dinner with Clark and former President Bill Clinton.

My report comes from the Arkansas Times weblog as confirmed by several people who attended. That includes Halter, the Rhodes Scholar and former acting commissioner of Social Security in the Clinton administration.

Less than two weeks into his formal exploration of seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Halter worked the terrace crowd, then went inside for the exclusive dinner, where, he tells me, he managed not to run into Clark.

Before dinner, Clark and Clinton appeared on the upper terrace and delivered remarks. Clinton, as usual, spoke generally and with partisan rhetoric appropriate to the occasion. Clark did that, too. But he also specifically hailed Attorney General Beebe, a declared Democratic gubernatorial candidate, calling him “our next governor.”

Halter had no choice but to stand there and try to act cool.

Of course, Halter assures me he wasn’t bothered and is undeterred. He says he had spoken a week earlier with Clark, and that while the general wished him well if he chose to do more than explore a race for governor, he made clear he was already committed to Beebe.

But Halter does add that a man standing next to him turned and said, “That’s not right.”

It wasn’t.

It’s one thing for Clark to support Beebe. It’s appropriate for the general to be candid with Halter about that. But to stand up at a general Democratic Party fund-raiser and make a selective public endorsement that plainly snubs a former campaign staffer who’s in the audience as a paying customer is simply tacky.

This was an occasion for generic pep talks and neutrality. There’ll be ample time later for Clark to endorse Beebe formally, and maybe even take reporters’ questions about what he has against this guy who worked closely with him for a couple of months in his presidential campaign.

All I can figure is that Clark wanted to reinforce his commitment to Beebe in light of an announcement a day or two before that some vague Internet outfit associated with the draft Clark movement in 2003 was endorsing Halter. It was the first enthusiasm for Halter’s candidacy that I’d seen outside of Arkansas Republicans, who have been delighted at the prospect of weakening Beebe in a primary.

Halter says he’s had a private discussion, too, with Clinton, whose presidency he served in the Office of Management and Budget before becoming acting Social Security commissioner. He says Clinton told him he’d be neutral in the primary, but that no one would be stronger for him if he got the Democratic nomination.

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