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Eight minutes with Wes Clark


Wes Clark was in town last Friday, as you may recall. The four-star general, first in his class at West Point, the would-be Democratic nominee, the Kosovo commander in chief -- that Wes Clark!

So I thought that I'd masquerade as a reporter, amble down to the City Aud, and cover Clark's dog and pony show. Clark was here to campaign for the Kerry-Edwards ticket (surprise!), and his advance people had managed to turn out a sparse but enthusiastic crowd.

Although the rally (if that's what it was) was supposed to start at 11 a.m., it actually began earlier, at 10:45. That's strange enough by itself, but the strangeness had only just begun.

First on the stage, warming up the crowd, was Joel Hefley's opponent in the "race" for the 5th Congressional District, Fred Hardee. Fred's an amiable guy, willing to fight the good fight against a well-regarded incumbent occupying one of the safest Republican seats in the country. He was wearing a rumpled blue suit with a red tie, telling an incomprehensible anecdote about Gen. Omar Bradley, and looking exactly like -- Omigod -- Rodney Dangerfield! Eerily appropriate, because in El Paso County, Democrats get no respect.

After Fred worked his magic, a couple of other folks took their turns -- both former soldiers, one female, one male. Finally the diminutive general bounced onto the stage and basked happily in a standing ovation from the crowd, by now swelled to 200 or more.

There followed a speech. No surprises here: Kerry-Edwards good, Bush-Cheney bad! Kerry smart, Bush dumb! Kerry has the right stuff; Bush has the wrong stuff! Partisan red meat, and the crowd loved it.

But now it was my turn to be excited. The Indy had arranged for eight minutes of face time with the general, and I was prepared to ask the kind of tough questions that might elicit a thoughtful response. Besides, I'd actually met Clark a couple of times years before, introduced by a mutual friend, Charles Ansbacher, then the symphony's conductor.

With the other lowly print reporters, I waited around while Clark was interviewed by all four TV stations, each represented by pert, perky and nearly interchangeable young women. This was his mission, after all -- to get some free TV time for the Kerry campaign right here in the heart of darkness. At last it was my turn -- a spooky handler in a tan suit who looked exactly like the bad guy in Die Another Day brought Clark over to be interviewed.

It started badly. I reminded Clark that we'd met before, and he exclaimed, "I know -- I remember!" And I blurted out "No, you don't -- but I was a politician once, so that's OK ..." The general scowled and stiffened -- time for the next question.

"Which is the better weapon: AK-47 or M-16?" Clark opted for the latest iteration of the M-16, but admitted that the Russian-designed AK was superior in the Vietnam era. I forgot to ask my follow-up: Why did it take us so long to improve the M-16? Never mind. "General, regardless of who's elected, how do you fix Iraq? How long do we have to stay, how many more troops do we need, and how do we go about making the necessary changes?"

Clark bobbed and weaved, spun and dodged. More troops? If we need them -- and that's not certain -- our new allies will want to help. For example, we'll use diplomacy to persuade the Iranians to secure the Iraq-Iran border, and stop cross-border infiltration by foreign insurgents. I interrupted: "But General, why should the Iranians want to help us out? And the border is hundreds of miles long, through wild country. Wouldn't it take several divisions to secure it? After all, look at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Surely ..." But I never got to finish. The guy from Die Another Day, sensing his boss' displeasure, led him smoothly away. Elapsed time: 4 minutes, 22 seconds.

As I expected, the interview had been an utter waste of time. Campaigns are about winning, not about truth telling.

But imagine an alternative universe in which candidates and their surrogates would talk honestly about the problems facing the country. President Bush would admit to his mistakes, tell us what he'd do to fix 'em, and stop his nonsensical distortions of Kerry's record. And we wouldn't have to listen to smarmy attack ads or be bombarded with nasty printed libels.

And there wouldn't be an Electoral College, so every vote would count, and Ann Coulter would be pregnant with Michael Moore's child and living in a trailer park in Sacramento and ...

Hey, General, thanks for the 4:22!


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