Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2003 / 3 Tishrei, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Consumer Reports

Clark adds up | The Democratic candidates' debate at Pace University was billed as the Broadway opening of the Wesley Clark Show. But it was a bit of a flop.

The subject du jour was the economy, not Clark's strong suit. The general did all right, coming up with 60-second bromides on the solvency of federal mortgage guarantees, the future of Social Security and the efficacy of national medical insurance. But you got the feeling that the minute more or less exhausted his information.

Why should he know more? Unlike the other candidates, Clark has lived most of his adult life in a welfare state. Military officers don't need to worry about housing, pensions or medical bills. The general has the personal economic experience of a trust-fund baby or a Soviet commissar.

But Clark isn't in the race as an economic savior. He's there because he's supposedly the Democrat Most Likely to Succeed in 2004. Since he has never been elected to anything, that's a hard claim to evaluate - at least until the New Hampshire primary.

But punditry must proceed, even in a vacuum. Luckily, I have devised an entirely scientific system for handicapping the general's chances. Here's how it works:

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Start by giving Clark 10 points for showing up. Add a point for his Southern roots (the last Northern Democrat to be elected President was JFK). Add another because he is a graduate of West Point. Then, remembering that the last service academy grad in the White House was Jimmy Carter, deduct five points. Subtotal: Seven.

Clark finished first in his class at West Point. That's minus three points for being a kissup. He was a Rhodes Scholar - minus one in red states, plus one in blue, canceling each other out. He fought in Vietnam, which, as John Kerry has demonstrated, is neutral. He was wounded - minus two (the idea is to shoot the enemy, not get shot yourself). But for coming out in one piece, add three points. Luck is the queen of martial - and political - virtues.

Clark is reportedly disliked by other generals. That's a plus five (anyone who has had dealings with general officers will understand why). He was supreme commander of NATO - add one for the cool-sounding title. He won the war in Kosovo without scuffing up his shoes. Two more. New subtotal: 13.

Yet, despite victory in the Balkans, Clark was removed from his command for what his former boss, Hugh Shelton, calls defects of "integrity and character." That's minus only half a point unless Shelton comes up with examples. Until then, Clark gets the benefit of the doubt. His wife's name is Gertrude, after all, and back in the '60s guys without character didn't marry girls named Gertrude.

Clark gets two additional points for his haircut and all-around preppie appearance. He was (excepting Carol Moseley Braun) the best-looking candidate on the stage at Pace. And the most presidential. John Kerry is too lanky. Howard Dean is too stocky. Al Sharpton is too sharp. Joe Lieberman is too schleppy. John Edwards is too cute. Dick Gephardt is too pale. Graham is too frail. Dennis Kucinich is from another planet. In this field, Clark looks like Mount Rushmore.

Little is known about the general's personal life, but he is said to be an active swimmer. If elected, Clark's hobby will pose a challenge to Democratic worthies accustomed to riding along in Bill Clinton's golf cart. It's worth a point just to see if National Democratic Committee chief Terry McAuliffe can float.

Clark was born a Jew, raised a Baptist and converted to Catholicism as a young man in Vietnam. Three points for e pluribus unum.

Judging by Clark's televised stump speeches, he is an indifferent orator. Most ex-generals are. Rank has its privileges; one of them is being listened to with rapt attention. Take away the four stars, and you have to earn your own laughs and make your own points. Some ex-generals learn; some don't. So far, Clark hasn't.

Not only that, he gave his most important speech to the wrong party. At the 2001 Lincoln Day dinner of the Pulaski County, Ark., Republicans, the general declared his love and admiration for Ronald Reagan, lauded George Bush I and praised President Bush and his foreign policy team ("we need them there"). If Clark gets the nomination, he'd be in the rare position of having endorsed his opponent. Give him two points for bipartisanship, take away 10 for not realizing that his speech was being taped.

New subtotal: 10.5.

Clark tried to excuse his hidden Republican tendencies by saying the country - including, presumably, himself - has been on "a journey" since Lincoln Day 2001. Who wants a general who sounds like Phil Donahue? Minus one.

Obviously Clark is gaffe-prone, which is serious but not fatal. True, he opened his campaign by telling reporters that he would have voted for the war in Iraq, losing him a point for intellectual honesty. But the next day he said he would have voted against the war. Give him three points for intellectual flexibility.

Finally, there is the alternative factor to consider. The Democrats' present alternatives to the general are Howard Dean, John Kerry, John Edwards, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham, Richard Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich. Score it a big nine points for Wesley Clark.

That puts the general's grand total at 20.5. Not great, but not hopeless either. Hey, at this stage in 1992, Bill Clinton was only a 16.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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