October 22, 2003
Gene Lyons, Political Columnist and Co-Author of "Hunting of the President," Chats with BuzzFlash About General Wesley Clark
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Gene Lyons is one of BuzzFlash's favorite writers and thinkers. He along with co-author Joe Conason wrote the seminal book on how the right-wing tried to tear down a duly elected and popular president and first lady in The Hunting of the President. Always insightful and to the point, we're honored to bring you our third interview with Gene Lyons about another intelligent Arkansas candidate, Wesley Clark, who is seeking the presidency.
Gene Lyons won the National Magazine Award in 1980. He has written extensively for Newsweek, Harper's, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Texas Monthly, Entertainment Weekly, and many other magazines. His books include The Higher Illiteracy (1988), Widow's Web (1993), and Fools for Scandal (1996). Gene currently writes a political column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
(Just a reminder: BuzzFlash has not endorsed any Democratic candidate for the presidency in the primaries. We believe that democracy should takes its course. We try to run pieces on all the leading contenders.)
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BUZZFLASH: What's your take on how Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark has shaken up the Democratic field?
GENE LYONS: I wrote a couple of columns in the summer when the talk was starting, sort of urging Wesley Clark to run. I suggested in a column that he ought to hear the call of duty. Given the views that Clark had, and his unique status and political gifts, I felt he almost had a duty to run because his candidacy would affect a lot of Democrats like an electrical charge. And I think it has to the extent that people have heard of him. The people who know about him and who have heard of him, and are not committed to a candidate, have been very turned on and excited by his candidacy. I think that he has a reasonably good chance to end up with the nomination.
BUZZFLASH: What advantages do you perceive, both professionally and personally, that Clark brings to the table that could really give him the edge in not only getting the nomination, but also defeating Bush?
LYONS: What I wrote a long time ago was we didn't know if Clark had the "political hunger." We didn't know if his value as a symbol would be equaled by his value as a politician -- as an actual candidate with the nuts and bolts of going from town to town, trying to sell yourself to people.
And some of those unknowns I think have been allayed. I think what they call it in the army -- his command presence -- is very noticeable. When you meet him, even privately, one-on-one, or in small groups, his personal charisma, which is very real and also very different from Clinton's, is apparent.
It's also true that quality of command presence is partly theatrical. You get to be a general partly by acting like a general. You command respect by acting authoritatively. At the same time, he's affable and approachable.
Clark's intellectual brilliance may be more apparent than Clinton's, because Clark doesn't do the "aw-shucks Southern country boy" act the way Clinton can do it. So you're struck immediately with how intelligent he is. At the same time, he listens to people and pays attention to what they're saying, and responds like a human being.
I want to be careful how I say this, but he has an almost feline presence -- and by that I don't mean "catty," as in bitchy. I mean like a big cat. I once encountered a mountain lion in the Point Reyes National Seashore in California, on a rainy day in winter, when I was all by myself. We stood stock still staring at each other for a few seconds. And there was this moment of "Gee, that's a cougar, this is really cool." And then an instant later, came the feeling of "My God, that's a lion!" There's nothing between me and him, no fence. Clark has a little bit of that kind of presence. You sense a tremendous personal authority about him held in and contained by self-discipline. Not somebody to fuck with, is another way of putting it.
BUZZFLASH: You look at his background -- Rhodes scholar, decorated war hero, Supreme Commander of NATO. It gives him a unique position to criticize Bush on terrorism and the decision to invade and continue to occupy Iraq. It seems that his status allows him to make those criticisms without looking as political as the other candidates -- that Clark's basing his criticism on professional experience.
LYONS: I think that it's hard to depoliticize a candidacy. But I think one of his reasons for running is his very obvious personal ambition, and I think that's something he needs to be careful with. He's clearly a very ambitious person. He clearly thinks that he is among the best qualified people to be President of the United States in his generation. I happen to think he's probably right. But nevertheless, people don't always react well to that quality in people.
I do think his concerns are honest. I think his criticisms of Bush are exactly what he believes. One reason that I think that is I have had an opportunity to talk to him in a sort of a semi-private way.
Going all the way back to the summer of 2002, I got a sense of how strong his feelings about Iraq were. Long before it was clear that the administration was really going to sell a war on Iraq, when it was just a kind of a Republican talking point, early in the summer of 2002, Wesley Clark was very strongly opposed to it. He thought it was definitely the wrong move. He conveyed that we'd be opening a Pandora's box that we might never get closed again. And he expressed that feeling to me, in a sort of quasi-public way. It was a Fourth of July party and a lot of journalists were there, and there were people listening to a small group of us talk. There wasn't an audience, there were just several people around. There was no criticism I could make that he didn't sort of see me and raise me in poker terms. Probably because he knew a lot more about it than I did. And his experience is vast, and his concerns were deep.
He was right, too. How long ago was it that you were hearing all this sweeping rhetoric from the Project for a New American Century; that we were going to essentially conquer the south of Asia, contain China, and dominate the Middle East? And the United States was going to stand astride the world like a colossus. And all of a sudden, we invade a crummy, tin-pot, little third-rate dictatorship like Iraq, and we've already got more than we can handle. It's clear we're not going to dominate the world. And the question is, how in the world do we get out of there with our skins intact? And how do we then find a foreign policy that makes more sense?
BUZZFLASH: Do you think that the situation in Iraq is going to play a significant role in the 2004 election versus domestic issues and the economy?
LYONS: I think it is going to be a big issue. People want to know how in the world we're going to get out of there and not make things worse. I think everybody's nervous about a precipitous pullout, but there's also no reason to think things are going to be markedly better by next fall. I think it's already beginning to impact domestic issues, especially the question of the budget. I think that a lot of people who may not have felt this way before are beginning to center on the question, "Is Bush in over his head?"
You always hear it expressed as a TV metaphor -- is this guy ready for prime time? But then Bush gets in office, and it suddenly occurs to you, "Well, gee, he's not a game show host. He's supposed to run the country." Does Bush know what he's doing? Do the people around him have any sense of reality? Or are they crackpot ideologues? I mean, I see them as utopian fantasists myself. What the Disney people call "imagineers" on a global scale. American foreign policy has begun to resemble the scenario for a James Bond film. And so I think, yes, for all those reasons and more, I think the war's likely going to come down on Bush's judgment.
BUZZFLASH: One of the things that Clark stressed when he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination was that criticizing George W. Bush is not unpatriotic. And he is in that unique position of being a decorated war hero and a general. It's hard to call someone like that unpatriotic. But nonetheless, if he gets the nomination or if he's asked to be a vice presidential candidate, the right wing is going to go after him.
BUZZFLASH: You're probably one of the most well-informed journalists on how attack politics play themselves out with a culpable media, based on your extensive research and writing on the Clintons. How do you think the right wing is going to go after Clark? What can he expect? What advice would you give Clark and the people who are working for him?
LYONS: Well, the outlines of it are already evident. They're saying he's too tightly wrapped, which is kind of akin to what they tried to do with John McCain. They're saying he's a zealot and tends to become unhinged. They're suggesting he's crazed with ambition.
I wrote in a column a couple of weeks ago that one of their lines of attack would be to portray him as sort of General Jack D. Ripper, who was the megalomaniacal general in Dr. Strangelove who was so concerned with his precious bodily fluids. And that's what I think they will try to do. They might go all the way to the edge of suggesting some kind of mental illness. I don't think he's very vulnerable to that sort of smear.
Clark gave a very interesting quote that I used in a column in a profile in Esquire. He said the whole question about running against George W. Bush boils down to how much pain can you take. So I think he has some idea of what's coming. I think he has some idea that it will be shrill, it will come from that side of the spectrum, and it will be harsh. I think they're going to try to portray him as a crackpot and as wildly ambitious, and therefore dangerous. The right-wing will definitely label him an opportunist and say he's switching parties simply to become President and he's power-mad.
My view is that Clark's campaign -- any democratic candidate's, really -- needs to take a page from the Clinton '92 campaign, in which they set up a kind of a counterintelligence staff which responded immediately and hard to the attacks and lies. I suspect that, given how good Clark is on his feet, and how clever he is, he may be tempted to think he can go this alone -- that he himself can fend this stuff off by addressing each smear one at a time and dealing with it. I don't know if that's possible because the volume of it is going to be beyond anything one person can cope with.
BUZZFLASH: Bush is no doubt going to run a two-sided campaign where he is the friendly Texan trying to stay above the fray, and all his minions such as Karl Rove will be doing the dirty work. There's no better example that what Bush's campaign did to John McCain, claiming he only received medals just to make him feel better for being a prisoner of war. Or, as you pointed out, that he was mentally unsafe or unstable.
LYONS: That's what the Bushes do. George W. Bush plays the affable back-slapper. And while he's slapping your back, Rove and company are preparing the shiv.
People like you and me and most BuzzFlash readers are always lamenting how people treat politics as if it is a TV show, and one that they watch with only passing attention. And so it does become a lot about symbolism. And Bush just seems like -- as my mother always used to say about Reagan -- too nice a fellow for that kind of thing.
BUZZFLASH: BuzzFlash is not going to endorse any of the Democratic candidates. And our position has always been, bottom line, whoever is the Democratic nominee to challenge Bush, in order to win, that candidate has to do four things: 1) Define the terms of the debate and the issues; 2) Defend themselves against the right-wing attacks, wherever they come from; 3) Be willing to go on the offensive and actually go after Bush's credibility on some very key issues such as Treasongate, the Iraq war, job losses, the deficit, etc.; and 4) Not apologize for standing up for Democratic positions and values, thereby activating the Democratic base. Are you impressed with how Clark's campaign is running? And do you foresee him being able to execute those four components against Bush?
LYONS: In a word, yes. I'm like BuzzFlash -- I don't really have a candidate. In fact, I sort of stayed away from the Democratic race because I felt like 10 candidates (now nine since Sen. Bob Graham dropped out) are too many to evaluate. I'm for the Democrat in this race. That's been my sort of default position. It's hard for me to imagine supporting Bush regardless who the wins the Democratic nomination. I mean, the record of failure to me is staggering. If Bush is a success, how you would define failure?
In American political terms, I think Clark is doing well or better than can be expected. I think he's already out-run early expectations. People were saying he was entering too late, and, all of a sudden, the polls come out and he's one of -- if not the -- front runners. The people on the Draft Wesley Clark website were right about there being nine candidates running, but more than half of the likely voters had made no decision yet. So it was pretty clear that people were not seeing what they wanted in the nine candidates. And I think what most Democrats want most passionately is somebody that can win.
BUZZFLASH: If Wesley Clark gets the nomination, it upsets the Republican Southern strategy. Give our readers a little bit of context and history to what the Southern strategy is, and how Clark affects the geo-political landscape and culture war.
LYONS: Well, basically the Southern strategy started with Nixon in the late ‘60s. The idea was to convince the core constituency -- Southern white men -- that the Republican Party was their home and that the Democrats were the women's party, the black people's party, the homosexual party, the party of disgruntled minorities who were anti-religious, anti-patriotic, and anti-American, in a fundamental way. That Democrats supported "race-mixing," immorality, and the welfare state. It worked well enough to swing the South to the Republicans in the wake of the Civil Rights Act.
Lyndon Johnson is famous for having predicted this. Dale Bumpers, the former Arkansas Senator, told me that as a very young man he congratulated LBJ for signing the Voting Rights Act of '64, and Johnson said, "Well, just as long as you understand that the whole South is going to be Republican in 10 years." And it has worked for a long time.
But I think that as a person and as a symbol, Clark has the potential to take all that away from the right-wing. I might add that I also think that there are an awful lot of genuine conservatives, in the classical sense, who are uneasy about where Bush is going. The conquer-the-world schemes, the giant sinkhole of the federal budget. Some of the best writing about Iraq has come from conservative or libertarian columnists like Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune or James Pinkerton of Newsday. Now this is sad, but those conservatives aren't going to listen to Carol Mosley Braun make the same criticism as that coming from Wesley Clark, who is a Southerner and a decorated military man. I think it's sad but true. Again, I think it's a battle of symbols.
I think that in practical terms Clark puts several Southern states back in play. Right now, Bush would be very hard-put to win any of the states that Gore won in the last election. So if you can take away from Bush, or at least strongly compete in Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky, possibly Georgia, Florida, with all of its military people, you all of a sudden take from Bush this air of invincibility and fundamentally change the electoral map. When you look at it like that you have to ask, how in the world is Bush going to win this election? Where are his electoral votes going to come from?
BUZZFLASH: There's this perception among progressives and Democrats that because the Bush administration is so right wing, and effectively all three branches of government are in the control of the Republican Party, that we're underdogs. But people forget that Gore won the election by a half-million votes. And let's not forget over 95,000 people cast their vote for Ralph Nader in Florida, while Bush "won" by 537 votes. When you look at the electoral map, the Democrats start out much stronger than what you would think they do. I think that the Democrats could feel a little bit more aggressive and empowered based on those things. As you've pointed out, if the Democratic candidate wins every state that Gore won, all the Democrats have to do is just pick off one more, whether it's Arkansas or West Virginia, and the Democrats take the White House.
LYONS: Well, I've been reminding people of that all along. But I also think Clark does more than that. My subjective view was that culturally there was no way that Dean, for example, could win in the South -- he would be a complete non-starter. Dean has a terrific line about this. He says he'd tell the pickup driving set (a group that would include me, for what it's worth) that they've been voting Republican for 30 years, and ask them "What have you got to show for it?" Great line, but would they ever hear it at all coming from a Vermont Yankee? I've got my doubts. And that would allow the Republicans to spend a lot more money in places like Missouri and Pennsylvania and Michigan that are states that are very competitive. And it would make it extremely difficult for Dean to win in that he'd have to run the table in all the other states and pick up one more state somewhere.
I'm just talking about pure symbolism now. I'm not talking about the candidates or their virtues or standards. The symbolism of Clark -- because we are talking about a television show, after all, if we're talking about a presidential campaign -- means you have trouble finding a way for the Republicans to win.
I think Clark would bring back a lot of military people. I think there's great disquiet among people of the old-fashioned style of patriotism right now, and it's looking for a place to go. And I think there's a very good chance it would go to Clark. I think that he would have a strong chance to unite that which has been divided.
I'm not going to tell you everything's wonderful in the South. But the amazing thing is how well the South adapted personally and culturally, in a day-to-day way, to all of the changes brought about forcibly by federal law in the ‘60s as a result of various civil rights acts. People manage to get along most of the time, and there is a much smaller role that racial hatred and racial prejudice plays out in everyday life in the Southern quadrant of the country than it did 30 or 40 years ago -- in public, on the job, in sports, and other areas of daily life.
You almost wouldn't know it from the campaigns of the Republican Party that used the Southern strategy. There is more open opportunity and more genuine friendship among and between different racial groups than ever before. The Republican campaigns in some parts of the South would make you think that everyone was a George Wallace supporter, or would be happy to vote for George Wallace, which isn't true.
Even so, many people that won those kinds of elections are sort of embarrassed by all that -- even people who voted for Wallace are ashamed. Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, is neither racist nor reactionary. I mean, yes, there's a subdued minority who are both of those things. They were the core of the Clinton haters, for example. But remember, Clinton always won.
BUZZFLASH: I get the sense that there's something going below the radar, and it has a lot to do with the surge of Dean and progressives becoming more active. Progressives feel there needs to be a primary goal of knocking Bush out of office, and, secondly, progressives could be more strategic in how they approach presidential politics, at least. There is no question that progressives should continue to work on issue advocacy locally and in grassroots campaigns. But when it comes to the presidential election, voting for a third party is, in fact, helping the Republicans. The difference between a Republican and a Democrat really is quite devastating, as the record of Bush would indicate. Do you get the sense that there's an undercurrent of resentment among several groups that are willing to focus on knocking Bush out?
LYONS: Yes, I do. I think that a lot of people are thinking straight because they feel so endangered by this administration. Fundamental American values seem endangered in a way that they've not seemed before. I think people on the left are going to be more serious about the coming election. They don't want to play around with their own kind of silly symbolism.
Let me suggest another way of putting it. One of the things I've said is I think that Bill Clinton symbolically represented the so-called Woodstock values of the Democratic Party. A lot of people felt that there was some kind of cultural divide. I think that a Clark candidacy has the capacity to close that divide. I've never shaken hands with his son -- I wouldn't know him if he knocked on my door -- but the kid's a Hollywood screenwriter, and his dad's a four-star general.
Some of those cultural divides start to close, and people are prioritizing in a useful way. They're putting some of their own symbolic but relatively trivial issues aside -- identity and gender issues, for example -- and saying we need someone in the country who can beat Bush. We need someone in office who will defend American independence and freedom, and would defend us physically if it came to that, and who knows how to do that, but who doesn't think that we need an American imperium and don't have to conquer the world.
I think that Wesley Clark offers a tremendous opportunity for people to think clearly about foreign policy and re-think how important all kinds of symbolic and "lifestyle issues" are to them -- whether it doesn't make more sense to put some of those things in your back pocket for a time and work on them later after you've dealt with the big threat, which is a guy who is bankrupting the nation and getting us involved in foreign entanglements -- to use Gen. George Washington's words -- of a kind we're not likely to get out of very easily.
Let's just look at the situation like this: How much of a partisan do you have to be to look at George W. Bush and Wesley Clark standing side by side and say to yourself, "I'd pick George W. Bush to lead this country." How partisan do you have to be to decide that Bush is more qualified in a national emergency -- a guy who can scarcely speak in complete sentences -- to handle a crisis over a decorated war hero, a Rhodes Scholar, a retired four star general, and the former Supreme Commander of NATO?
BUZZFLASH: Gene Lyons, always good to talk politics with you. Thank you for your thoughts.
LYONS: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Gene Lyons Columns [LINK]
Get "The Hunting of the President: The 10-Year Campaign To Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton" by Gene Lyons and Joe Conason [LINK]
BuzzFlash Interview, Gene Lyons on "The Hunting of the President," Al Gore, and the right-wing attack machine, November 2001 [LINK]
BuzzFlash Interviews Gene Lyons: Part II on Arkansas Politics, January 22, 2002 [LINK]
otherwise noted, all original