Thursday, February 12, 2004


February 13, 2004
Beware Generals Bearing a Grudge


In pulling out of the Democratic presidential race, Gen. Wesley Clark ended what was once a promising quest to join the long line of men who converted battlefield prominence into political victory. The military is one of the traditional springboards to the White House: 12 former generals have been president, six of them career military men (only lawyers have done better). Yet no general has ascended to the Oval Office for half a century.

So is the demise of the Clark campaign another sign that in the urban, affluent, white-collar America of today the armed forces no longer hold enough respect to sell their best and brightest to the electorate? Probably not. Wesley Clark was never an heir to the tradition of Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant. Rather, his military career and personality fit neatly into a different military category: generals who became political also-rans.

First, consider the qualities of the six career generals who won the White House. They were national icons swept into office on a tide of popular enthusiasm. George Washington was a unanimous choice of the Electoral College. Andrew Jackson, victor at New Orleans, led the crusade for democratic reform. William Henry Harrison won enduring fame at the Battle of Tippecanoe, as did Zachary Taylor at Buena Vista. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower led citizen armies to victory in the two greatest wars the nation has faced. In each case, the office sought the man, not vice versa.

Yet, surprisingly, these men shared a gift for managing men quietly. Their warm personalities cast a glow over their subordinates. They took their jobs seriously, but not themselves. Eisenhower, Taylor and Grant were ordinary men who did extraordinary jobs. They commanded unobtrusively, did not posture for the press or pronounce on matters of public policy. All were highly intelligent but resisted putting their intelligence on display. Their military dispatches were crisply written in unadorned English. And if given orders they disagreed with, they complied without complaint.

Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," rarely wore a uniform. Grant was most at ease in the blouse of a private soldier. The Ike jacket of World War II was designed for comfort, not ceremony. All three identified with the citizen-soldiers they led, and each was adored by the armies they commanded. They worked easily with their superiors and their skill at human relations transferred readily from war to politics.

By contrast, famous generals who lost the presidency — including Winfield Scott, John C. Frémont, George McClellan, Winfield Scott Hancock, Leonard Wood and Douglas MacArthur — ran to prove themselves right. All had clashed with their civilian superiors, and their campaigns imploded for the same reasons that led to those clashes: assertions of intellectual superiority, moral certitude and the lack of a common touch. They were men who made a point of standing apart. They possessed messianic confidence in the correctness of every position they adopted, and had difficulty adjusting to views contrary to their own. To put it simply: they took themselves very seriously.

Temperament tells the difference. The also-rans were singular achievers. MacArthur finished first in his class at West Point, McClellan second. MacArthur and Leonard Wood won the Medal of Honor. Frémont mapped the Oregon Trail. Scott, a major general at 27, was the Army's general in chief for two decades. (Only Hancock seems in temperament more like those who won the presidency — thus it is not surprising that he came closest to getting the job, losing to James A. Garfield by 7,000 votes in 1880.)

Each of the also-rans shared the distinction of having been relieved of his command or placed on the shelf by higher authority. Winfield Scott, after capturing Mexico City and subduing the Mexican army, was summarily relieved by President James Polk in 1848; he suffered a crushing electoral defeat at the hands of Franklin Pierce four years later. Frémont was not only relieved of his command, but court-martialed and convicted for insubordination and mutiny in 1848 (Polk granted him clemency). He became the Republican nominee for president in 1856, losing to James Buchanan.

After Lincoln removed McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, the "Young Napoleon" became an outspoken critic of Lincoln's conduct of the war and ran against the president in 1864. Winfield Scott Hancock was relieved by Grant as military governor of Louisiana for being too lax in enforcing Reconstruction.

Leonard Wood charged up San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War and was appointed Army chief of staff in 1910. Wood wore out his welcome at the Wilson White House and was not reappointed when his term expired, and was forced to spend World War I at a training camp in the United States. He led the first eight ballots at the 1920 Republican convention before delegates broke for Warren G. Harding. Douglas MacArthur was of course relieved by President Harry S. Truman for insubordination during the Korean War and returned to give a triumphal speech to a joint session of Congress. He entered several Republican primaries in the 1952 race, but found little resonance for his candidacy.

MacArthur, McClellan and Winfield Scott in particular were great soldiers. But their school of command rested on charisma. Their dispatches were cast in heroic prose, designed with an eye to future historians. Scott, "Old Fuss and Feathers," wore all the uniform the law allowed. McClellan and MacArthur always dressed for the occasion. All three insisted on ultimate command; this can be a valuable military virtue, but it is scarcely a skill transferable to the political arena.

Wesley Clark has more than a little in common with those whose political ambitions met frustration. A Rhodes Scholar who led his class at West Point, he was not a team player. He wore his ambition on his sleeve. He fought heroically in Vietnam but was made to sit out the Persian Gulf war at a training command in California. The leadership passed him over for duty with the joint staff in Washington, and he was not the Army's first choice to take over military command of NATO in the 1990's. Famously, he was relieved of his NATO command by President Bill Clinton after he clashed repeatedly with his military and civilian superiors.

During the campaign, comments by his former colleagues cemented this picture. Gen. Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, questioned General Clark's character and integrity. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen reportedly said he believed selecting General Clark for the NATO job was one of the worst decisions he ever made. Even Gen. John Shalikashvili, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs was General Clark's most powerful supporter in the military, acknowledged that he "lacked the warmth and humanity that truly great commanders need."

On the campaign trail, General Clark remained tightly wound, pitting his drive and intellect against the system. The same question that dogged him during his military career continued to arise: Does Wes Clark have a goal other than Wes Clark? I was most struck when he told The New Yorker that he became a Democrat because Karl Rove, the Bush White House adviser, never returned his calls. It is easy to imagine George McClellan saying something similar.

Jean Edward Smith, a professor at Marshall University and author of "Grant," is writing a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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By R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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