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Election 2004

The presidential candidate CNN built?

Poised on TV as both warrior and analyst, the surging Gen. Wesley Clark is already a familiar face.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published October 6, 2003

photo
[AP photo]
As NATO commander, Gen. Wesley Clark was in the spotlight answering reporters' questions about Kosovo.

WASHINGTON - Supporters of Gen. Wesley Clark are fond of his stars and stripes.

They tout his combat experience - he was shot four times in the Vietnam War - and his record as commander of NATO. Some supporters wear a campaign button that doesn't have any words, just four stars.

But Clark's remarkable surge as a presidential candidate cannot be solely explained by his military resume. He came into the public eye as a TV pundit.

During the Iraq war, he was on CNN for 25 days straight, explaining B-2 bombers, bunker busters and "decapitating strikes." His commentary earned good reviews and has become a springboard for his presidential campaign.

He is Wesley Clark, D-CNN.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said Clark got weeks of round-the-clock TV exposure that other candidates can only dream about.

"John Kerry is fighting to get two minutes on CNN or MSNBC," she said. "Wesley Clark had the advantage of being a regular. It essentially gave him a chance to audition his military credentials."

Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat who has become one of Clark's biggest supporters in Congress, said the TV appearances convinced him Clark was the best candidate: "I knew this was the man that could win."

But television has its drawbacks. Some candidates have lost credibility under the hot studio lights. And in Clark's case, his appearances have also created a thick stack of transcripts that his opponents can examine for possible gaffes and flip-flops.

"Being on television regularly increases your name ID, but it's a double-edged sword," said Christine Iverson, press secretary at the Republican National Committee, where researchers are scouring transcripts of the general's TV commentary. "He's taken positions on issues that he is now contradicting."

"Never at a casual pace'

Retired Gen. Dan Christman, a longtime friend of Clark's who was a fellow teacher at West Point, says Clark was a rare breed in the Army: a warrior and a diplomat.

"He's a warrior for certain, but he can think," Christman says. "He knows how to deal with politicians and diplomats at the highest levels."

Christman cites Clark's role in negotiating a settlement to the war in the Balkans. He says the two sides were at an impasse over how to divide a Serbian enclave until Clark proposed a novel solution. He had the Defense Mapping Agency create a three-dimensional computer map of the disputed area so both sides could see the geography from all angles and determine the most natural borders. Clark's technique helped them decide where where the lines should be drawn.

"It was a very creative solution," Christman said. "This sort of creativity was Wes' strong suit."

Clark graduated first in his class from West Point, earned a master's degree in philosophy, politics and economics, and was a Rhodes Scholar. In his 34-year Army career, he taught at West Point, headed Southern Command, which oversees the U.S. military in Latin America and the Caribbean, and was director of strategic planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He was recently criticized by retired Gen. Hugh Shelton for unspecified "integrity and character issues," but Christman dismisses those comments as lingering sore feelings from a disagreement between the generals when Clark was NATO commander.

Clark is disciplined. He stays fit by swimming an hour a day and even managed to do his workout between CNN appearances during the war.

"When Wes worked out, it was never at a casual pace," says Christman. "It was always to set a lap record."

"The geeky stuff'

During the Iraq war, people in Washington joked that old generals never die, they just went on CNN.

Christman, a fellow CNN pundit, said Clark was poised on TV because he was accustomed to the spotlight. Clark was on the debate team at West Point and, during his Army career, gave frequent speeches.

"He is very telegenic; he's very articulate," Christman says. "He was able to bridge from the geeky stuff to the war fighting stuff with tremendous ability."

While some candidates have fared poorly or even wilted on TV, analysts say Clark has gained credibility.

"He comes through as a very sober, sensible guy," says Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

Jamieson, the communications professor, said some TV military analysts "appeared to be apologists for the administration. Others were there to attack. Clark seemed restrained, careful. He didn't seem to be carrying a strong ideological agenda."

Clark was on CNN every day from the start of the war on March 19 through April 12. He appeared so often that anchor Aaron Brown called him "the cable news equivalent of a foxhole buddy." Clark was a paid analyst for CNN, but the network has declined to say how much he was paid. He appeared on other networks before and after his work for CNN.

Now that he is a candidate, his TV appearances have become the equivalent of free advertising. He won't need to spend as much on ads to introduce himself because he is already a familiar face to many voters.

His appearances "made him a more familiar figure to people. He's not just some abstract general to people," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Pat Buchanan, co-host of CNN's Crossfire, got a similar boost when he ran for president in 1996. He was sharp-witted and able to talk in snappy sound bites, and many Republican voters knew him from the show. But Buchanan was always considered a long shot, while Clark is believed to be a real contender.

Clark's hours in front of the camera also gave him valuable experience handling the pressure of live TV.

Kalb said Clark's TV time "not only allowed people to see him, it allowed him to understand the system."

But others doubt that his time as a TV analyst has provided much of a boost.

Tom Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said Clark's TV celebrity "certainly doesn't account for the hysterical reception he has gotten." Donnelly said Clark's analysis was "pretty standard, conventional wisdom, moderate-to-liberal type stuff."

Donnelly believes Clark's surge to the top of the polls is more a reflection of his military background and his opposition to the Iraq war. "He is the perfect antiwar Democrat."

CNN political director Tom Hannon says Clark's surge was a matter of fortunate timing. He launched his campaign three weeks ago, as Hurricane Isabel hit the East Coast, when many people were tuned to their TV.

"His coverage was interspersed with Hurricane Isabel," Hannon said. "He got a nice announcement boost."

Hannon said CNN has cut its ties with Clark and "we cover him just like we cover anybody else."

"Back to haunt him'

Clark has never held elective office and has no voting record like the Senate and House members in the race. But his opponents can rely on transcripts of his comments on TV.

"Wesley Clark has built up a record on CNN," said Iverson of the Republican Party. "That can be helpful, and that can sometimes be harmful. A lot of things he has said on the air in the past could come back to haunt him."

For example, Republican researchers found Clark gave different interpretations of whether the 1998 U.S. bombing of Iraq destroyed the country's weapons of mass destruction.

But others say Clark did not make controversial statements on TV. It's hard to be controversial when you're explaining B-2s and bunker busters.

Said Hannon of CNN, "We've gone back and scrutinized what he said to see if there was anything (controversial) we could see in what he said at CNN. We couldn't find anything."

- Times researchers Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

For more 2004 election coverage and profiles of other presidential candidates, go to www.sptimes.com/election04


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