Some of us can vaguely remember a time when Wesley Clark was going to be the next Eisenhower - a general above the fray, a former supreme commander of NATO who had met the great challenges of his time, someone who would Bring Us Together, lift the tone of national politics, a champion of unity above the usual divisive politics, The Nation's Hope, and all the rest of the nominating speech.
But that was long ago in another country, and, besides, that Wesley Clark is no more - if he was ever real. His appeal as a presidential candidate peaked the moment he announced back in 2003, if not before, and it steadily deteriorated with every roundhouse swing he took and missed. Sad.
The general's big mistake? Instead of proving a different kind of candidate, he became just another partisan of the louder, less enduring sort. Instead of remaining above the fray, he waded into the muddy thick of it. Instead of bringing us together, he seemed intent on driving us further apart. Soon his was just one more rasping voice in the off-key chorus of presidential also-rans.
Now he's down there among the Michael Moore/Bill O'Reilly bottom-feeders. Impervious to the lessons of his last failed campaign, General Clark is now fighting it out in a kind of two-falls-out-of-three exhibition match against Rush Limbaugh. That's right: El Rushbo himself, The Mouth, the idol of the dittoheads; in short, the very personification of high-decibel, low-fact talk radio.
Rush Limbaugh's style may be the essence of vulgarity, but even the vulgar can be smeared. It happened this way: On his Morning Update, a kind of daily communique for true believers, Mr. Limbaugh had gone after one Jesse MacBeth, one of those celebrated anti-war soldiers who turned out to be anti-factual. (It's a wonder The New Republic didn't sign him up as a regular contributor, a la its fact-challenged Scott Thomas Beauchamp.)
But leave it to El Rushbo to tell the story in his own imitable style: "Recently Jesse MacBeth, the poster boy for the anti-war left, had his day in court. He was sentenced to five months in jail (and) three years' probation for falsifying a Department of Veterans Affairs claim; his Army discharge record, too. Yes, Jesse MacBeth was in the Army. Briefly. Fourty-four days. Before he washed out of boot camp. MacBeth is not an Army Ranger; he is not a corporal; he never won the Purple Heart; he was never in combat to witness the horrors he claimed to have seen."
One of Rush's dittoheads soon called in to complain that the Biased Media "never talk to real soldiers. They pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and sound off to the media." That's when The Mouth of the Right blurted out - "the phony soldiers."
Uh oh. An anti-war group, Media Matters, seized upon that plural like a bird of prey on a shiny jewel, and used it to contend that Mr. Limbaugh had smeared "service members who advocate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq." Whereupon the Rush said it was clear he was referring only to Jesse MacBeth and his like.
Well, it wasn't clear to Media Matters. The left was shocked - shocked! This is how the rhetorical game is played. The point isn't to debate principles or policies but to play Gotcha.
Besides, the Dems in the Senate needed a cause to get outraged over after MoveOn.org - the GOP's best foil - had embarrassed them by its attack on General Petraeus/Betray-Us. The backlash had hurt.
Soon enough, Wesley Clark was claiming that Rush Limbaugh had "labeled any American soldier who supports an end to the war in Iraq as 'phony.' " Any soldier. Goodness. Talk about word games, even the president and commander-in-chief could be said to support "an end to the war in Iraq" - if on his own victorious terms.
And now General Clark's own Web site, WesPac, its logo ablaze with four stars, is asking folks to ban Rush from Armed Forces Radio: "Click here to hold Rush Limbaugh accountable for his offensive and outrageous comments - tell your members of Congress to take Rush off Armed Forces radio today!"
The bold-faced and underlined type pretty well sums up the tone of General Clark's appeal: cheap but flashy. The general's rhetorical style is but a print version of Rush's own deep-throated roar over the air. And the "principle" he's asserting in this rhetorical rasslin' match is the oldest and unfairest: If you can't beat 'em, shut 'em up.
How's that for a lesson in freedom of speech and The American Way? In the event there's any doubt about what General Clark is up to, his Web site carries a less than flattering picture of El Rushbo - complete with stogie - imprinted with the demand: DUMP RUSH. The whole Web site is the mod, Internetted equivalent of the old, cheaply mimeographed hand-outs, replete with all-caps and exclamation points, that used to be popular only in the lower reaches of American sub-politics. It looks the way Rush Limbaugh sounds.
And so the muddy battle of quote, counter-quote, and counter-counter-quote rages on - to diminishing interest. It's hard now to recall that better time when Wesley Clark was going to restore dignity to American politics, not destroy what's left of it. But once the political bug hits, it can rage out of control even in generals. Maybe especially in generals. But who says Wesley Clark can't accomplish the impossible? He's made Rush Limbaugh - Rush Limbaugh! - look dignified.
Who's right and who's wrong in this screeching catfight? Answer: Does it matter? A better question would be: Who has followed his code? Rush is, was, and surely will remain a tabloid type with a capital T. He has stayed true to his loud calling. What disappoints about Wesley Clark is that he has not acted as the officer and gentleman he is, but as just another fourth-rate polemicist. How the mighty have fallen. Yes, sad.