For General Clark, vets offer more than just votes
When is a campaign stop not a campaign stop?
It's a trick question. As the New Hampshire primary continues to heat up, every time a candidate steps out the door it's a "campaign stop." Granted, all campaign events are not created equal, and Tuesday's Veterans Day ceremony was no Howard Dean house party, despite Clark's borrowed assertion from OutKast that "you gotta shake it like a Polaroid picture." But the presence of General Wesley Clark at the event-ostensibly as a retired veteran but in spirit undoubtedly as a presidential candidate-elevated it above typical small-town Americana.
From the event description, Adam and I knew it would be nothing like the Edwards, Kerry, and Dean gatherings that were marked by partisanship and aggressive campaigning. Given the setting on such a meaningful holiday along with Clark's own experience as a general, we expected an atmosphere founded more upon patriotism, camaraderie and recognition of service. Active campaigning would have been an exploitation of the ceremony and Clark recognized that. That said, it was obvious there was still a candidate in the room, shown by the press coverage alone.
Upon arrival at the VFW post it was clear that the event would be more than a simple get-together between Clark and a few veterans. Numerous reporters from CBS, NBC, and even the BBC stood by inside with laptops and cameras. We sat down, expecting the candidate to arrive late as usual.
I have never visited a VFW and our observations proved quite amusing. Honestly, who would expect a disco ball?
Everything inside seemed, well, brown. It felt like a middle school cafeteria. The lighting was dim. Electronic dart machines and gold plaques covered the wood-paneled walls. The bar was fully stocked and busy.
A big screen TV played the ABC Nightly News with Peter Jennings. A table of refreshments including everything from donuts to tuna sandwiches was positioned near the fireplace.
Veterans managed to find old friends through the thick haze of cigarette smoke, which threatened to obscure even the shiniest of medals.
The post members in attendance ceded one corner of the hall to members of the media and the sharply dressed Clark campaign staff. There was no mistaking one for the other. And then there was Adam and me-the two youngest attendees by a solid 15 years, chatting amongst ourselves. Soon we struck up a conversation with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer, Jim, who is working on a Clark profile, following the candidate around New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Before proceeding, it should be noted that Clark recently ran a "Rock the Vote" commercial targeting college-aged students where he spends the first 20 seconds discussing core Democratic issues, then says in a still serious manner, "And I don't care what the other candidates say, I don't think OutKast is really breaking up. Andre 3000 and Big Boy just cut solo records, that's all." He then pounded fists with a bearded college student across the table from him. Visit this URL to watch the clip: www.rockthevote.com/ multimedia/candidates /clark.artv.affl.150k.mov.
But, does General Wesley Clark really listen to OutKast's rap tunes? I was committed to finding out the truth.
Clark arrived 45 minutes late. My first glimpse was of him signing someone's copy of his book, Waging Modern War. When the rest of the press saw him, they swarmed the General within seconds. The once quiet entrance suddenly became one full of frenzy.
He greeted former officers, one by one, discussing what years they had graduated from West Point and what friends they shared. Flashes went off in Clark's face at least every second. We had to wonder, was this Wesley Clark the veteran or Wesley Clark the presidential candidate?
As Clark went to greet the next veteran, I held my arm out in front of him and said, "It's great to see an OutKast fan running for President." I had no idea how he would respond. This Veterans Day event couldn't have been more removed from anything remotely linked to MTV or the rap world. But, the General immediately lightened up and grabbed my hand while laughing. Suddenly Clark and I were completely surrounded by reporters and he whispered into my ear, "You gotta shake it like a Polaroid picture," quoting lyrics from OutKast's recent hit song, "Hey Ya!" My question had been answered.
Not until hours later did it occur to me that a top Presidential Candidate, West Point Valedictorian, Oxford Rhodes Scholar, NATO Supreme Commander, Kosovo Operation Allied Force leader, and United States General had actually whispered rap lyrics into my ear.
The event then took to the streets for a candlelight march to a local granite veterans memorial. Disorganized at first, the march was led by an armed guard while participants carried battery-powered plastic candles. Both of ours' died after five minutes.
Police cars surrounded the march while business people on Main Street watched through the windows of their stores with hands over heart. Adam and I tried to listen to Clark's conversation with the post's head commander during the march, and that was the only time we heard mention of his planned policies-when the commander asked him about what he would do with the Iraq situation.
A poem was recited at the memorial, followed by three deafening shots from the honor guard. When Clark's candle died, a campaign member immediately replaced it with brightly glowing one.
Marching back to the VFW, we overheard Clark offer his take on Howard Dean's recent tangle with the confederate flag, calling the stars and bars a "divisive symbol." Then Clark the presidential candidate was transformed into Clark the retired General, musing about his friends in the services and how in the army one develops close-knit relationships with friends from around the country and the world.
After returning to the VFW, Clark bought a promised round of Sam Adams for the entire honor guard while mingling with the Franklin mayor and other vets. Clark made several trips, personally delivering beers to the men. He carried up to four beers in a hand once, and ignored the press photographing his every move.
After Clark mysteriously disappeared for 20 minutes, the brief formal ceremony began. Post commanders recited poems over a mic system that made the room's astonishingly poor acoustics evident, the self-conscious mayor rambled about how he is not running for reelection and his recent trip to El Salvador, and then Clark spoke.
Would he mention his campaign? He was certainly given the opportunity, when a past New Hampshire VFW commander took the microphone and urged his fellow vets to demand entitlements from the various candidates. But Clark didn't take the bait. He merely said, "It's great to see the spirit and leadership here. This is a very patriotic part of America and I'm glad to be here. I'd like to say thank you for the service and comradeship you offer one another." Yet for all his avoidance of using the language of a presidential candidate, he still came across as a candidate-precisely because he avoided the language.
The ceremony ended with "God Bless America," and I found my hand being grabbed by an elderly vet beside me, who even lifted his hand and mine at the words, "Home sweet home."
After the event, I remembered seeing a vet on a sidewalk in Sanford during our drive to Franklin. The man in the middle of the run-down southern Maine town sat alone, legless and in a wheelchair, wearing nothing more than a U.S.S. something hat and flannel shirt to brave the chilling flurried air. He was holding an American flag in his left hand. I made eye contact with him for a brief second.
Walking out of the VFW, I realized that perhaps an overabundance of college students, including myself, forget that so many veterans like the man in Sanford, are not nearly as successful as Wesley Clark. Few at the VFW could stop looking to see where the General was at every moment. People kept saying how much of an honor it was to even be in his presence. But, why is it that the lonely veteran on that Sanford sidewalk deserves any so much less respect than Clark? Both men served their country.
On the way home, we discussed how Clark's campaign may not be as strong as it was a month ago, but he's still a legitimate contender. If he's going to prove himself worthy of the nomination, he'll have to show the public that he's more than a retired General with an impressive resume.
It is evident many would love to see Clark establish clear stances on central Democratic Party issues. As long as he spends as much time writing a clear domestic political agenda as he studies OutKast lyrics, Wesley Clark should be a solid candidate.
At the Hampton Falls town green gathering, some people had probably never seen Edwards's face before. At the Weirs Beach firehouse, Kerry assertively attempted to sway an elderly crowd of mostly "healthcare voters" on why his experience deserves their vote. At the Keene house party, Dean sought to energize the tightly-packed group of supporters, independents, and even fishermen, behind his cause.
But here, Clark was amongst what people seemed to be his brothers. I knew very little about the VFW world before the event, but I liked what I saw. There, men don't have to recount their unforgettable stories, but instead can connect by single handshakes. They share a common understanding of what it means to serve your country. As Clark marched down the street with the post commander, the two chatted as though they had grown up together. If only elected officials shared the same camaraderie.
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