The Wesley Clark Gaffe in Context

Due to his military service, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threat of terrorism, national security is John McCain's calling card and is the one issue where he outpolls rival Barack Obama. Using the strategy perfected by Karl Rove of attacking an opponent's strength, McCain's military service has been sharply criticized by both the right and the left. CNN commentator Jack Cafferty even wondered if McCain's military service is overrated.

Former General Wesley Clark created a firestorm of controversy last weekend when he criticized John McCain's presidential leadership ability:

"I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility."
CBS's Bob Schieffer then reminded Clark that Barack Obama did not have this experience either to which Clark quipped, "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."

Republicans and the McCain campaign immediately called on Obama to repudiate Clark's remarks. In addition to putting Obama on the defensive, Wesley Clark likely took himself out of contention to be his running mate.

Given the bluntness of his remarks, Republican outrage was predictable (although they may be overplaying their hand by using this as an opportunity to attack Clark's military record in return). However, what is lost in the ensuing political posturing, denouncements, and expressions of outrage is the actual message Clark was trying to convey.

Wesley Clark was arguing that getting captured by enemy forces has no correlation with executive leadership. And even though this may be impolitic to say, he makes a valid point. The fact that McCain endured torture and made it home alive without dishonoring his uniform or the nation he served obviously makes him a hero worth everyone's respect. But at the same time, the fact that he got shot down and captured by the enemy has no bearing whatsoever on his ability to be President. Wesley Clark was arguing that executive judgment and being the victim of an enemy attack have no relationship. It's obviously difficult criticizing a former POW on anything related to the military, but this point is at least worth considering.

Having your house broken into does not make you an authority on home security measures. (It does, however, make you uniquely qualified to talk about the impact of crime.)

Being diagnosed with a terminal illness does not make you an authority on cutting edge medical research. (It does, however, make you uniquely qualified to talk about the effect of such an illness on families.)

Having to apply for food stamps does not make you an authority on entitlement reform. (It does, however, make your perspective on the reasons why people need federal assistance a bit more credible.)

Wesley Clark is arguing that being captured by enemy forces makes John McCain an authority on talking about the demands faced by our armed forces in combat, not on executive leadership. The problem is, even though Clark's argument is valid, it is politically foolish because criticizing McCain's military service only reinforces Barack Obama's lack of military service and shifts the conversation back to McCain's strength. Also, time Obama has to spend defending McCain's war record and distancing himself from his surrogates is time not being spent hammering Republicans on the economy.

Interestingly, this conjures up the 2004 presidential campaign when John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had his patriotism and military credentials impugned by people who had never even worn the uniform. George Bush, who never served in a combat zone, was seen as tougher on national security than McCain in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. It seems that McCain learned the lessons of hardball politics and the art of swiftboating and was determined not to become their latest casualty.

Barack Obama never served in the military. He was too young to be drafted during the Vietnam War and spent most of his adulthood living during peaceful times. Obama himself has been quite civil and respectful regarding McCain's military service and even turning it into a pivot by reminding voters of McCain's flawed judgment as it pertains to the chaos in Iraq. But as the fallout from Clark's remarks illustrates, attacking one's military credentials is risky business, no matter how valid the point may be. A bit more tact on behalf of Wesley Clark may have led the media to question the actual substance of his remarks rather than the way the remarks were delivered.

Score one for John McCain.

17 comment(s):

Mark in Austin said...

Hi, Anthony.

The "unfair" criticism from Clark was not made subject of most of the attacks on him.

1] Clark demeaned McC's squadron command as not a "wartime" command. I have read that McC was successful in that squadron command in both retaining readiness and morale. If any of you have other info, I am all eyes.

2] Clark suggested that McC's service on the SASC, although honorable, was not "executive", as if it was not a noteworthy experience and accomplishment.

The criticism posed by CNN and others was banal. The two points I cite above indicated to me that Clark was "pulling rank" and essentially boasting that he had command experience in wartime. That to me was neither pretty nor called for.

Brett said...

At least the whole "He served in the military!" worship factor seems more diluted this time. In 2004, it was utterly ridiculous on the Democratic side, what with the "John Kerry, reporting for duty" and all.

Thomas said...

I am getting more and more amazed that neither McCain nor Obama seems to able to control what their minions are saying.

I don't think I know people in real life who so casually throw off stupid and insulting remarks.

Anthony Palmer said...


I seem to remember Clark criticizing another military person during the 2004 campaign. He was implicitly berating someone for being an enlisted person by referencing "the NCO club" or something. Obviously, he was a general and it seemed like he was pulling rank there too.

Clark looks like he'd be a good candidate on paper, but the more he campaigns and/or opens his mouth, the less attractive he becomes. He's just like Bill Richardson.



Kerry's "reporting for duty" line was lame. I think a lot of Democrats, especially from this year's campaign, are probably kicking themselves for not running in 2004. Winning the presidency is all about timing. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, or Hillary Clinton could have easily won the nomination had they run. And I'm sure all of those candidates would have beaten Bush. Kerry was simply a lousy candidate.



It's interesting that you use the term "their minions" because Wesley Clark is not even an Obama surrogate! He's a Hillary Clinton surrogate! Now McCain's calling on Obama to cut him loose, but what's the relationship between Clark and Obama? Aside from being Democrats, I don't think there's any "there" there. If I were McCain, I'd be worried about overplaying my hand. Nobody really cares about this story anymore it seems. And they probably shouldn't care. This is inside baseball stuff here now.

Thomas said...

You are right, Anthony. I had totally forgotten about who Wesley Clark was affiliated with.

Snead said...

You had me right up to the point where you suggest the media might actually question the substance of an issue. But everything before that was good reading.

James C. said...

Getting back to the comments by retired General Clark. I cannot understand how someone of his background can say that about McCain. Sure getting shot down and being a POW is not executive experience. But having command, whether in peace time or war, sure is. A Military commander is responsible for everything that his command does or fails to do. At least that makes him light years more experienced that Barack Hussein Obama. If, in Clark's view, John McCain is not executive material; then what does he see in Obama???

Freadom said...

Henry Knox had no military experience whatsoever, and he helped the U.S. win the Revolution and became first secretary of war. All he did was read lots of books about guns and war.

Reagan had no military experience, and he made a viable leader of the military.

I'm not trying to defend Clark, but I do see his point.

Then again, we are in a time of war, and McCain's Military experience does make him the more qualified person when it comes to national defense.

My pennies worth.

Black Political Analysis said...

My understanding when I first heard Clark's comments was that he was trying (imperfectly obviously) that "Just because you've done something heroic in the past, doesn't qualify you for the presidency." I didn't necessarily take it as a smear on McCain's service record per se.

S.W. Anderson said...

"The problem is, even though Clark's argument is valid, it is politically foolish because criticizing McCain's military service only reinforces Barack Obama's lack of military service and shifts the conversation back to McCain's strength."

That's an excellent point. Although I agree with what Clark said and don't think he was all that blunt, especially not after what was done to Kerry, I can't fault your logic, AP.

If we're going to talk about scope and quality of military leadership experience and credentials, compare McCain with the ex-general presidents we've had: Washington, Jackson, Grant and Eisenhower. Compared to the military responsibilities those four shouldered and their wartime accomplishments, McCain's military experience really is limited.

Yes, McCain served in combat. Yes, he was a hero as a POW. He did command a squadron in peacetime. All very much to his credit, but nothing like leading the Revolutionary Army against the world's foremost military, winning the Battle of New Orleans, winning the Civil War or liberating Europe.

Re: Kerry's "reporting for duty" moment, I also thought it was over the top. It was a belated and lame attempt to show pride in his past military service, enthusiasm for today's military and veterans, and to refute Republican smears and jeers. So, I understand what he was trying to do and why. It just wasn't a good way to do it.

That said, Democrats have every right to try to put an end to charges they're anti-America, anti-military and all-around unpatriotic. It's never been true, just an example of the big-lie technique being made to work extremely well by the likes of slimy strategists like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.

Yesterday on CNN I saw Ed Schultz light into a right-wing hatchetmouth for doing that and it made me feel good all over.

S.W. Anderson said...

"Reagan had no military experience, and he made a viable leader of the military."

Please, review the fumbled conquest of tiny Grenada, the Khobar Towers debacle and the illegal secret war in Central America.

Then, there was funding and arming the Mujahadeen that eventually morphed into the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the arming and funding of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War.

To top it all off, The Gipper once actually went to an all-Nazi SS graveyard in France and there laid a wreath in honor of the fallen soldiers.

Reagan was viable as a military leader in the sense we still had a capable, well-equipped military when he left office. After the current reign of error, that seems like a major achievement.

Anthony Palmer said...


Imagine that. A media that actually focuses on real issues instead of sensationalism and empty talking points. I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon, but it's always nice to hope!


James C.,

Why should Obama have to apologize? Wesley Clark is not even part of the Obama campaign. Does this mean we should call on McCain to repudiate every outlandish statement heard from the right even though these people are not affiliated with his campaign?

You are right that being an officer does provide leadership and executive experience. However, that's not what Clark was talking about. He said getting shot down by the enemy has nothing to do with executive experience. And that is true.

However, one issue that detracts from your argument is the interesting way in which you refer to the two candidates. Why do you use one candidate's middle name and not the other? If this was intentionally done, I'd be happy to debate you on this issue.



This is not a criticism, but interestingly, people have brought up Eisenhower, the Founding Fathers, and even Reagan when talking about military experience (or the lack thereof) and how we've had successful presidencies as a result. But nobody has said anything about Al Gore or John Kerry, both of whose military experience involved more valor than George Bush's. Terrorism and national security weren't really major issues in the 2000 campaign, but they definitely were in 2004. If people had used the same argument then that we're using now, Kerry would be getting ready for his reelection bid. Did McCain speak out against the swiftboating of Kerry? Interesting how times have changed.


Prof. King,

You are right, but I think McCain is trying to avoid having his record come under scrutiny because that would take away his main advantage over Obama. Karl Rove's strategy is to attack your opponent's strength. That's why Kerry lost. But not every part of McCain's military experience qualifies him to be commander in chief. Serving as an officer certainly helps. But getting shot down and captured by the enemy does not. It seems most people can't make this distinction, so that's why McCain was so quick to respond.



You raise good points about Reagan, but I don't think the public is ready to cut him down to size when it comes to his national security credentials. (By the way, I thought Khobar Towers happened during Clinton's term?) In Reagan's case, his military record has been masked by the word "strength," which parallels his ability to end the Cold War and his "peace through strength" philosophy.

Here's a good line of attack that I have yet to hear from a Democrat. The next time a Republican criticizes Democrats for being insufficiently patriotic or weak when it comes to military matters, the Democrats should retort by asking these Republicans if they are disparaging Democrats who currently wear the uniform and are fighting abroad for these Republicans' freedom to belittle their patriotism. That seems like a simple, but effective line of attack, but I'm surprised nobody has tried responding this way. Instead, we hear these lame "How dare you impugn my patriotism?" retorts which only invite challenges for the Democrats to "prove it" by adopting Republican policies on national defense. It's a trap that the Dems haven't quite yet figured out how to deal with yet.

S.W. Anderson said...

The Khobar Towers attack occurred during Reagan's term. Shortly afterward, Reagan ordered an end to our Marines' presence in Saudi Arabia. That, BTW, is something folks who like to shout "retreat and defeat" while pointing fingers don't like to be reminded of.

Your line of attack is a good one, AP. But actually, I heard Al Franken use it two or three years ago.

S.W. Anderson said...

AP, you were right and I was having a brain cramp, or something. For the record:

1983 Beirut barracks bombing

1996 Khobar Towers bombing

(If this goes through, it will be my third or fourth try. In the previous attempts, the comment would stall and time out. At least, that's how it appeared at my end. If you wound up with a bunch of duplicates, I couldn't help it. I wanted to get one through, and it seemed none were.)

Freadom said...

All presidents have made mistakes. It's never easy to know "the exact" right thing to do. For example, Both Reagan and Clinton were blind to radical Islam, even while it has been brewing up since Carter allowed the Shah of Iran to lose power to the Ayatola (sp torture). The fist signs may have been easily missed, but the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was a clear act of War. Perhaps if Clinton had more of a military mindset he would have declared War on Radical Islam at that time. However, it's easy to live in hindsight.

The reason that Reagan armed the Iraqi army in the Iran-Iraqi war was because Carter allowed this situation to build up, and Reagan had no other means of ending the conflict. With democrats running Congress, involving the American military in the conflict was not an option, so he armed the Iraqi Army (remember, he had no other options).

Reagan also knew an act of war when he saw it, which is why he bombed Libya. Libya took the message, and has never bothered the U.S. Since. That's the kind of message Clinton should have sent after the first bombing of the trade center. Maybe then 9-11 would not have happened. However, I don't just blame Clinton here, I'm just making a point.

My point here is, as long as Obama understands the role of the military, and is smart enough and willing enough to use it, I see no reason why he can't be a good leader of the military. I don't believe you necessarily need military experience to be a good military leader.

James C. said...

Anthony Palmer

- I never said that Barack Hussein Obama should apologize. Try to understand what is written before you speak.

- My question what not about what Clark said about McCain. My question was WHAT DOES CLARK SEE IN OBAMA THAT HE DOES NOT SEE IN MCCAIN WHEN IT COMES TO EXECUTIVE EXPERIENCE!!!!

Hopefully you will understand now. And as far as the middle names go, Yes I use Obama's middle name on purpose because I keep in mind the following quote by Barack Hussein Obama from - Audacity of Hope:

'I will stand with the Muslim's should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.'

Anthony Palmer said...

James C.,

Okay, I see. Here's the complete quote, which can be found on p. 261 of "The Audacity of Hope":

Of course, not all my conversations in immigrant communities follow this easy pattern. In the wake of 9/11, my meetings with Arab and Pakistani Americans, for example, have a more urgent quality, for the stories of detentions and FBI questioning and hard stares from neighbors have shaken their sense of security and belonging. They have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific reassurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.

It sounds like Barack HUSSEIN!!!!! Obama believes immigrants (including Arab Muslims) should not be demonized in times of tragedy and that he will resist efforts to have them treated like second-class citizens the same way the Japanese, the Irish, the Chinese, Black slaves and other immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) were. I think that's an honorable position and do not feel threatened by this quote at all.

I know your question wasn't about what Clark said, but that the fact remains that what he said was true. Clark may be a Democrat, but he's not an Obama surrogate. It sounds more like Clark was trying to introduce a bit of levity when it comes to McCain's military record. He is indeed a war hero and as an officer, he has executive experience. But getting shot down and captured by the enemy has nothing to do with this executive experience.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.