The Savior Complex

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One of the collateral amusements of General Wesley Clark's nascent presidential candidacy was the unseemly rush of certain liberals to embrace a member of the U.S. Army after decades of knee-jerk loathing for all things military. In an open letter encouraging Clark to run, Michael Moore, the fastidiously unkempt left-wing documentarian, wrote, "Michael Moore likes a general? I never thought I'd write those words. But desperate times call for desperate measures." Wonder what Moore thinks now, after Clark spent the first days of his campaign stepping all over his epaulets on the most basic question of the coming election: Was George W. Bush right or wrong to go to war in Iraq? Actually, I have a certain sympathy for Clark's stumbles.

This is a difficult question, and the general has learned that while truth-telling requires more than a yes or no answer, politics demands the exact opposite. The most responsible position, which John Kerry has been suffering with for a year now, is that it was wrong for Bush to go to war in such a rush and unilaterally—but that it was right for members of Congress to send a signal of deep concern about the situation in Iraq to the United Nations and Saddam Hussein. In a perfect world, that signal would have been a lot more nuanced than the blank check Congress gave the President to go to war. But politics is, as often as not, a choice between the awful and the dreadful.

Clark's precipitate tumble from his white horse was entirely predictable, as was the drumbeat from the cognoscenti and much of the media for him to enter the race and save the day. Those of us demented enough to follow electoral politics have been living with the nine Democrats for most of a year now. They've become pretty boring. They gather occasionally to debate one another and succeed only in diminishing themselves. Howard Dean's exciting candidacy was an exception for most of the summer, but he has spent much of September stepping on his epaulets, too. What's a pundit—or a despairing Democratic member of Congress—to do? I have covered eight presidential campaigns, and the answer is always the same: find a deus ex machina. In my time, these have ranged from Jerry Brown (1976) to Ralph Nader to Lee Iacocca to Mario Cuomo to Al Gore (1992, when Clinton seemed to be stumbling) to Ross Perot. Most were wise enough to stay away; those who jumped in failed.

This has been a boom season for would-be Democratic saviors. In addition to Wes Clark, there have been all sorts of inane rustling about Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. Former President Clinton—who really should go home and write his book—has been dropping Hillary hints for several weeks now; the Senator herself insisted on posting Run-Hill-Run e-mail on her website until last Friday. This is self-promotional cotton candy. The junior Senator from New York is, if nothing else, disciplined. She knows she needs to spend time bulking up her resume, especially on national security issues—it's no accident she lobbied for a place on the Senate Armed Services Committee. As for Gore, he is extremely smart, and he gave a terrific speech in August about the Bush Administration's foreign-policy fecklessness—but does anybody remember what a terrible candidate he was in 2000?

As for Wesley Clark, difficult days loom. Michael Moore's fantasy had some plausibility. Generals aren't what they used to be. They're better educated, more cosmopolitan than their predecessors. They serve as unofficial diplomats: Clark spent most of his time as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO negotiating with allies—over such minutiae as bombing targets—during the Kosovo campaign. As a result, much of the current military leadership tends to be pragmatic, nonideological and internationalist (which is why the uniformed military is so displeased with the civilian neoconservative ideologues currently in charge of the Pentagon). There is a certain attractiveness, too, to the crisp, no-nonsense orderliness that is part of the military ethos—especially in contrast to the procedural and intellectual slovenliness of modern politics. Indeed, the most mystifying aspect of Clark's entry into the race was how profoundly unmilitary it was—he seemed totally unprepared tactically, strategically and substantively. His campaign message was, essentially: Here I am.

Clark's entry should signal the end of the silly season. It is time for the Democrats to get down to business and choose a candidate. In an ideal world, it would be time to clear the stage. The three vanity candidates—Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun—should repair immediately to the lecture circuit. John Edwards and Bob Graham should return to the Senate. That's not going to happen, but elections will be held soon enough, a winner will emerge and, given their antipathy toward George W. Bush, most Democrats will suddenly come to the conclusion that their new champion is Franklin Roosevelt on roller skates. But that's a delusion we'll deal with next spring.