Clark Misfires

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008; 10:32 AM

I covered the brief excursion that was Wesley Clark's presidential campaign, which was probably doomed the first day when, under questioning from reporters on his maiden flight, he turned to his press aide and shouted, "Mary, help!"

Clark, a big-time critic of President Bush's Iraq policy, had stepped in it by saying he probably would have voted for the war resolution.

Later in that 2004 campaign, when some former military leaders denounced the retired general, Clark's aides wanted to put out his military records, which contained praise from the likes of Al Haig and Colin Powell. Three Washington Post reporters turned down an exclusive that required them to agree in advance to publish a separate story on the records. The documents were given to the New York Times and the Boston Globe, which said no conditions were set.

Clark has always recognized the importance of military reputations, and as the campaign wore on, the former CNN analyst grew more savvy at dealing with the media.

So it couldn't have been an accident that Clark used an appearance on "Face the Nation" Sunday to strafe John McCain over his Vietnam War record.

"That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded--that wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not . . . I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark told Bob Schieffer.

I never imagined, given what McCain endured in North Vietnam, that his own service would become an issue. But then, I didn't anticipate John Kerry coming under political sniper fire for his Vietnam medals, either.

No one's saying that being a POW entitles you to the Oval Office or places you above criticism. But Barack Obama frequently prefaces his criticism of McCain with a nod to his honorable service. Which raises the question: What was Wes thinking?

Despite what some bloggers are assuming, Clark was not doing "Face" as an Obama surrogate. Clark was a big Hillary Clinton backer during the primaries -- not surprisingly since it was Bill Clinton who made him the NATO commander -- and an insider says the campaign didn't book him on Schieffer or suggest those talking points (though Clark obviously checked in with the team beforehand).

"We of course honor General Clark's service," Obama spokesman Bill Burton told me. "In this case we disagree with some of the things he had to say."

Clark told Dan Abrams on MSNBC he hadn't been speaking for the campaign, but didn't back off his remarks.

Keep in mind, as Dick Polman notes, McCain himself has said: "It doesn't take a lot of talent to intercept a surface-to-air missile with your own airplane."

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