Clark’s Clunker


Retired Gen. Wesley Clark went where no Democrat really truly wants to go on Sunday -- calling into question, in surprisingly sharp language, Sen. John McCain’s military record.

I’ve pasted the unvarnished portion of the transcript below, from CBS’s “Face the Nation,” and here’s the part that has tongues wagging about how Clark may have ended any chance he had of being Sen. Barack Obama’s running mate.

“He hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded -- that wasn't a wartime squadron,” said Clark, who did command NATO allied forces during the war in Kosovo.

And the corker: “Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” Clark added.

This is fast-becoming one of those Washington stories where Clark sails alone. Please, find me a single Democrat who thinks it’s good politics to call into question the military credentials of a man who spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war.

(One might also note that Clark spent all of about one month commanding an infantry division in Vietnam before being injured himself -- by all accounts, quite heroically.)

Obama’s speech Monday in Independence, Mo., included an implicit  repudiation of Clark’s sentiments: “Let me say at this at outset of my remarks.  I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign.  And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.”

“Let me also add that no one should ever devalue [military] service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides,” Obama added, later in the speech. “We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period -- full stop.”

Obama spokesman Bill Burton goes further: “As he's said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain's service, and of course he rejects yesterday's statement by General Clark.”

Clark’s comments seem to miss a vital point about the McCain campaign: Yes, his military service is part of his stock campaign biography, but McCain is not running on that record nearly as much as he’s running on his service in Congress.

Clark is right that “getting shot down” isn’t a qualification to be president, but McCain isn’t saying that it is. You could argue that 2004’s Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. -- whose military rank Clark once belittled by saying “he's a lieutenant and I'm a general -- made his personal military service a far larger part of his campaign than McCain has.  On that front -- as well as in military service front, of course -- McCain boasts vastly more experience than Obama. Obama is arguing that experience does not necessarily correlate with judgment, yet Clark is saying that the type of experience McCain has (and doesn’t have) leaves him ill-equipped to make sound judgments.

This is a terrible fit with the Obama campaign’s message. That’s why Clark isn’t finding many allies here -- and why the comments are being kept alive quite aggressively by the GOP.

The McCain campaign organized a conference call Monday with (irony alert!) several veterans of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Kerry.

“I am astounded that a person who represents a presidential candidate would again be involved in this kind of political shenanigans against a man of John McCain's character,” said one such veteran of that campaign, George “Bud” Day, per ABC’s Gregory Wallace.

(Of the Swift Boat comparison, Day said: “The Swift Boat attacks were simply a revelation of the truth. . . . The similarity does not exist here.”

The Obama people are right to point out that Clark was a supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in the primaries, and only endorsed Obama after Clinton left the race.

Clark has no formal title inside the Obama operation, but he has been referred to as an informal military adviser to the Obama campaign, and he’s been a go-to guy for surrogate work, which is how he ended up on CBS on Sunday.

Here’s guessing the Obama folks won’t want to see him on a Sunday show again anytime soon. And here’s further guessing that -- for some of the reasons that made themselves evident during Clark’s short-lived 2004 campaign -- he may have talked himself down a few pegs on Obama’s veepstakes short list.


Some commentators are taking issue with the characterization that Clark called into question McCain’s military record.

Here’s Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo: “Did Wes Clark call into question John McCain's war record? Did he say any element of it wasn't true, honorable, anything?” 

And Karl Frisch, of Media Matters: “The media driven notion that Gen. Clark somehow attacked Sen. McCain's military service is patently false. In fact, the opposite is true -- he praised it. This controversy was created and fueled by a media unwilling to live up to the basic journalistic standard of accuracy and thoroughness.”

These are points well-taken (though it seems like a stretch to suggest that Clark was trying to praise McCain). It is most accurate to say that Clark is calling into question the VALUE of McCain’s war record as a qualification for the presidency, not any element of the service itself.

I would also add that Obama and his campaign do not seem to care about that particular nuance, in its tough denunciation of Clark’s sentiments.


BOB SCHIEFFER: How can you say that John McCain is untested and untried, General?

CLARK:  Because in the matters of national security policy making, it's a matter of understanding risk.  It's a matter of gauging your opponents and it's a matter of being held accountable.

John McCain's never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war.  He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee.  And he has traveled all over the world.

But he hasn't held executive responsibility. 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.  Do you want to take the risk?  What about your reputation?  How do we handle this publicly?  He hasn't made that calls, Bob.

SCHIEFFER:  Well, General, maybe -- could I just interrupt you?

CLARK:  Sure.

SCHIEFFER:  I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences, either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.  I mean...

CLARK:  Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.

-- Rick Klein

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