Sunday, September 17, 2006

Suddenly a Southern General: Wes Clark Is The Last Best Hope for the Democratic Party

by Bernie Quigley - for WesPAC, 9/17/2006

When Wesley Clark arrived in Concord, New Hampshire, to sign the book and officially enter the New Hampshire primary, there were few on hand to greet him. But it was a wonder that anyone was there at all.

Silver-haired Southern Generals had less than made their mark here in New England’s north country where New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine blend into their own distinct and independent-minded province.

We get Willy Nelson today in Bernie’s TV ads. Everyone calls Vermont’s Senate candidate Bernie Sanders by his first name as he is one of us. (I think Bernie’s got it. At the Tunbridge farm fair in Vermont yesterday, I saw hundreds of people wearing Bernie stickers and only one wearing a Tarrant sticker and that was Tarrant.) And in truth, Willy seems more likely to belong here. But a Southern General? As time passed us by like a river which brought us here then headed South, then Southwest and West and across the Pacific on its auspicious American journey, we’d all but forgotten our soldiers.

Joshua Chamberlain, who with a small band of Down Easters, out of ammo and alone at the peak of Cemetery Ridge, turned a page of world history, but is forgotten today in Maine and even despised. And Robert Gould Shaw, buried on the battlefield with his African-American men at the request of his Boston Blue-Blood father, is passed unnoticed by tourists and New England visitors alike on their way to the Duck Pond and the Make Way for Ducklings statuary in Boston Common.

I’ll say this bluntly: If you were raised in New England at the end of World War II you would be taught that soldiers are bad (and Southern Generals the worst of all). Necessary sometimes, but not something you would aspire to be yourself. That would be mostly for guys from Texas. Or Arkansas.

All of our uncles and family people had served – in Mark Clark’s army in southern Europe, in General Patton’s tank corp – but in New England, the season had changed.

Some generational theorists suggest it changed at a very specific moment at the Newport Folk Festival about two minutes away from my high school, when the howling lament of the young Triskster and generational waif, Bob Dylan, traveled his lonesome road from Minnesota’s border land wilderness to our little town. His first voice, raw and apocalyptic, would ring of Changing Times and echo the sentiments of John F. Kennedy’s speech writer, Ted Sorensen, particularly the great speech about the “new man of the Sixties,” Kennedy gave in Los Angeles when he accepted the Democratic nomination. It would electrify a new generation.

Kennedy was dead before that age could awaken and the mood darkened with his assassination. A different age would open when our eloquent and volatile Magical Animal changed from a wooden guitar to one electric at Newport. A year or two later when my only high school friend to willingly enter military service was killed in Vietnam, his death was marked only by the aging; veterans of the Legion Hall and the generous town people of the Lion’s Club.

It was not a good season for war. We’d seen too much of it. Raymond Aaron had called it a century of Total War. And with the advent of nuclear weapons, the world had changed intrinsically. The great physicist Wolfgang Pauli made the claim that the human psyche itself had changed; that is had been shattered and maybe destroyed.

But there was innocence to our American endeavors. French liberated by American soldiers at Normandy commented on how free and almost childlike our soldiers were. Andre Malraux, who admired our newness in the world, once said we were the first people to become first in the world without wanting to be. We’d been cast there by fate and circumstances, and the elegance, élan and style – Norman Mailer called it “animal grace” – of Jack Kennedy and his astonishing wife Jackie (who’d read Malraux and brought him to the White House) brought an awakening to the world and a turning of the page in history.

Later, when I served in northern Thailand, I noticed that the shops and stalls in the marketplace all featured pictures of the King of Thailand, the Queen, and JFK. I thought they might be trying to appeal to G.I.s sent to war in Vietnam. But a friend in the Foreign Service said it was the same in huts and villages throughout Africa. Which was a little mystifying to us in New England. Our families knew his families back to Ireland. He was born in our neighborhood and he married Jackie in my high school parish church.

Something left us when he was assassinated. Something from which we have not yet fully recovered.

You can always tell the character of a good man by the wife he gets. Nancy Reagan was smarter than Ronald Reagan and insiders say she was responsible for his brilliant second-term initiatives in Reykjavik (at which Gorbachev said Reagan was incoherent). Likewise, Jackie’s world was deeper and broader than Jack’s and she brought to the White House a fullness we had not seen before nor since. It was that caliber of character and intelligence which first began to ascend again in Concord when Wes Clark first came to New Hampshire.

When General Clark signed the book in Concord, it was crystal clear who was in charge of this country. War fever had gripped the country and the populist press marshaled it relentlessly, dominating and territorializing the political scene. At a brief news conference General Clark asked the reporters present if they wanted to hear his ideas on the war on terrorism. It was a brilliant and practical plan about inviting the Saudis to engage in the war as much was (and is) at stake for them. But the press didn’t seem particularly interested.

General Clark brought thoughtful consideration and in depth analysis to the political condition. To us biased New Englanders, it was a little surprising for an army General, even for one who had served as NATO chief and brought peace to Kosovo. One of the most striking moments came a month or so later at a house party in Concord. At the end of the informal gathering, one of the reporters present asked General Clark a question and it just came naturally to him to create an analogy to a similar historical situation which occurred several hundred years before in Europe. Clark explained the situation in terms of historical dynamics, in the same way that Kennedy advisors and supporters Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith or Henry Steele Commager might have. One of the reporters broke out laughing, from joy and surprise. He’d not, in our time, seen this in a politician.

President Bush, who rises to a populist drumbeat and acts “from the gut”as he likes to say, has stated in personal interviews how he found thoughtful discussion in his classical Yankee education at Andover, Yale and Harvard to be contemptible. He finds it pretentious. This confuses us New Englanders, because he seems to hate us, even the 99% of us who went to ordinary schools. Yet to us up here it is clear that this Connecticut-born President is Yankee though and through and the only thing Southern or Texan about him is his desire to be one. He brings to mind Eudora Welty’s cat that had kittens in an oven and called them biscuits.

It works for him in the populist press, but this is not a way to solve problems.

As bad as this President is, for Democrats, the war on Iraq and the desire to do the right thing after 9/11 make him hard to counter. Perhaps because the shadow of JFK’s death still afflicts Democrats, particularly those of us from the Northeast, and when we come forth we come forth to some degree out of shadow, and we bring with us vengeance and a sword. It alienates mainstream America which does not want to be disloyal at a critical time.

It seems almost impossible today for anyone but Senator John McCain to question the administration as it presses on with the most disgraceful policies, advancing torture and interrogation methods more suited to the Viet Cong than Jack Kennedy’s America (or Telford Taylor’s, for that matter, or Dwight Eisenhower’s). Among the Democrats, only Wesley Clark seems to be able to manage to get through without shrillness and dark rhetoric. Perhaps because he is a soldier through and through. Perhaps because he is a warrior/scholar, like the Man in the Center of Lao Tsu’s and Sun Tsu’s ancient vision of wisdom guiding action. I think it is that it just comes naturally to him to find decency in himself and a positive outlook no matter what the circumstances; that he can find that life force whole and within himself, which was unique to JFK as well.

It is possible today to go back on You Tube and other internet venues and hear Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sing at Newport in 1964 and hear Jack Kennedy speak in Boston and Washington. It provides a nice documentary picture – a snapshot of the moment’s intangibles that you can’t quite describe in words. It is a worthwhile exercise to go back and listen to the Kennedy press conferences, not so much for the President’s message, but to observe the complexity of the reporter’s questions and the President’s answers. The complexity of a post-war world of common people. And compare to the simplicity of “gut reaction” press and politics of today.

One of the wisest and most thoughtful observations General Clark made was on his last visit here to New Hamshire at the end of the primary. Those of us who had volunteered for him at the beginning were called to come again to Concord on the morning John Kerry announced his Vice President. We thought it would be Wes Clark, but on the radio on the way down, we learned it was to be John Edwards. The primary had passed, and as it was at the beginning, again there were few in attendance. General Clark encouraged us to go out and work for Kerry and Edwards in this most critical election.

And this is what he said to us: “The Bush administration does not really represent the will of the American people. But if he is reelected, in five years it will.”

It was a chilling though and a lucid observation of cultural passages as they trail through political opinion and processes.

It came to mind yesterday morning reading about President Bush’s attempt to “redefine” treatment of prisoners and pass legislation that would create special military tribunals to try terrorist suspects and continue secret interrogations in clandestine prisons abroad.

Colin Powell said, in support of Senator McCain, “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.”

The world at large and here at home, for these comments reflect us as well, as we have come to doubt our own moral basis. And if this is what we have become, we have failed ourselves and failed our Republic.

Powell’s comments were amplified as the night before we had watched the terrific and instructional movie Black Hawk Down, about American soldiers on a UN mission to Mogadishu; humiliated, broken and shot to bloody pieces. It was the same Mogadishu where my state department friend had seen pictures of Jack and Jackie Kennedy in huts and shops 30 years before.

From then to now a process can be seen; one of retreat, one of arrogance, one of incompetence and one of hubris. The Somalian tragedy in hindsight began to look like Khartoum as it was to the Brits; the end of a power arc in world history which left Victoria’s Imperial England running in naked terror from the end of a spear. Jack Kennedy carried a flame cupped in his hands to these same places where we were welcomed, trusted and cheered.

Today the path seems open to McCain, who wants the Presidency badly. And that is good for the country as it will repudiate the Republicans who have brought us shame and disgrace at home and suffering abroad. But if generational theory is correct, and in hindsight it always has been, the thing that is supposed to happen at the critical turning point never does and we get something else entirely different and unexpected instead.

We are at such a critical historical juncture now. In times like this, just when we go looking for the new Eisenhower, we get Jack Kennedy instead; just when we go looking for the new John Wayne instead we get Luke Skywalker; just when we hope to see the new Pope John Paul appear among us, we get instead the Dalai Lama. It is then that the least expected happens. It is then that a lone, undernourished troubadour with a Biblical bent and the fire of free youth will change the world overnight simply by putting aside a wooden guitar for an electric one, and a whole new generation of men will put down their swords and grow their beards. It appears as an anomaly and it comes in the night like something out of Revelation; suddenly a Strong Man; suddenly Woodstock; suddenly a Hollywood actor turned politician; suddenly a Georgia Sunday School teacher and peanut farmer turned President; suddenly a Southern General. And everything moves forward from that moment, and everything which came before is suddenly forgotten.