The late composer-entertainer-raconteur Oscar Levant famously said about a former general and president, Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Once he makes up his mind, he's full of indecision."
Levant might as easily have been talking about the 10th "little Indian" in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Last Thursday (Sept. 18), Clark tried to explain his position on the war to liberate Iraq. At first, he said he would have supported the congressional resolution authorizing the U.S. invasion. A day later, perhaps after hearing from pollsters and actual or potential donors to his campaign, he pulled a "Clinton" and tried to have it both ways. Clark said Friday (Sept. 19) that he "would never have voted for this war."
In an interview with the Associated Press on Friday, during which he tried to "clarify" his Thursday remarks, Clark sounded Nixonian when he said, "Let's make one thing real clear, I would never have voted for this war, never. I've gotten a very consistent record on this."
Clark said on Iraq he preferred the diplomatic approach, but that wasn't getting us anywhere with Saddam Hussein, who had ignored or violated every U.N. resolution and entreaty sent his way. Here's a perfect campaign theme song for Clark: "First you say you will and then you won't. And then you say you do, and then you don't. You're undecided now, so what are you gonna do?" Clark, an obviously intelligent man (No. 1 in his class at West Point), is suffering from officer withdrawal. In the military, a general is used to giving an order and having it obeyed. In politics, he is in the unfamiliar position of finding out what the troops want and following them.
Expanding on his "position" (which appears to be constantly in flux), Clark said, "At the time (of the congressional resolution), I probably would have voted for it." Even here he cannot tell us what he would have done in retrospect. Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20. Clark apparently has a hindsight astigmatism. He continued, "I don't know if I would have (voted for the resolution) or not. I've said it both ways because when you get into this, what happens is you have to put yourself in a position." Yes, indeed, taking a position is something one might expect from a person who wishes to be president. Holding that position at least for the duration of the campaign (flipping once in office is another matter) is what most voters expect of a candidate soliciting their vote.
But flipping one's position within 24 hours on such a crucial issue as war with Iraq and the broader issue of the battle against terrorists is not leadership. It is the type of crass pandering more emblematic of seasoned politicians, not recently retired generals.
If Clark's attraction is supposed to be his decisiveness in battle, then what value is he to his party if he wobbles, waffles and straddles in his first foray into political combat?
How's this for another example of indecisiveness? Asked to comment on Howard Dean's criticism of the war, Clark responded, "I think he's right. That in retrospect we should never have gone in there. I didn't want to go in there either. But on the other hand, he wasn't inside the bubble of those who were exposed to the information."
And neither were you, Gen. Clark. Harry Truman said something about Dwight Eisenhower that might be prophetic: "Why, this fellow don't know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday." It turned out Truman was wrong about Eisenhower, a general who led the effort to liberate Europe from Hitler and became wildly popular with the U.S. public. That insult might more aptly apply to Clark.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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