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Late-arriving candidate got push from Clintons
( 2003-09-19 16:00) (New York Times)

Behind Gen. Wesley K. Clark's candidacy for the White House is a former president fanning the flames.

Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark pauses in a production studio during a break in a television interview about his decision to run for the Democratic nomination for president, early Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003 in Little Rock, Ark. Clark, 58, will become the 10th candidate in a Democratic race that is up for grabs. [AP Photo]

General Clark, in fact, said today that he had had a series of conversations with both the former president, Bill Clinton, and his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, as well as close aides to them and that all of them had encouraged him to run.

The story, though, is not simple.

At first glance, it would seem that Mr. Clinton and General Clark would have a longtime bond. They each lost their fathers early. From the same small patch of 1950's America, they emerged as ambitious, high-achieving golden boys, becoming Rhodes Scholars and attending Oxford University, then soaring to the tops of their respective professions at relatively young ages.

In reality, they hardly knew each other. Instead of paths that crossed, theirs were parallel. And when their lives finally intersected - while Mr. Clinton was president and General Clark commanded the allied troops in Europe - it was a complex and tortured time for both.

To General Clark's humiliation, President Clinton's Pentagon relieved him of his command. And President Clinton had signed off on the plan, according to several published accounts, apparently unaware that he was being deceived by Clark detractors.

Now the 58-year-old career Army officer wants to be president. And the 57-year-old former president seems eager to promote his candidacy.

General Clark said in an interview today he had talked with both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton over the last few weeks. Beyond saying that they had been encouraging, he was reluctant to discuss the conversations because he was "afraid I'm going to misquote one of them."

Earlier this summer, Mr. Clinton and Mrs. Clinton were talking up General Clark to their friends.

"During their visits to Martha's Vineyard, there was certainly a lot of buzz about General Clark's potential candidacy," said Alan M. Dershowitz, the author and Harvard Law School professor who hobnobbed on the Vineyard with the Clintons.

"Obviously they didn't make any endorsement, but Bill particularly was clearly talking up his virtues," Mr. Dershowitz added. "You could tell he was Bill's kind of guy."

And just last week, at a dinner at the Clintons' home in Chappaqua, N.Y., the former president told guests the Democratic Party had "two stars," referring to Senator Clinton and General Clark.

Since then, some of Mr. Clinton's former associates have signed on with General Clark's incipient campaign.

One of them is Mickey Kantor, who was Mr. Clinton's campaign chairman in 1992. "I'm doing everything I can to give him personal advice and talk to others about him," Mr. Kantor said.

Both Clintons, Mr. Kantor said, "are really admirers of General Clark and his talents and are greatly impressed with him." He added: "Given their admiration for General Clark, I'd be surprised if they were anything but supportive of anyone who has worked for them for doing anything to help him."

Mr. Kantor said that the Clintons' enthusiasm did not extend to recruiting people for the Clark campaign, and he expected that neither Clinton would endorse any candidate in the Democratic primaries. But their enthusiasm is evident.

"He's a good man, he's a smart man, served our country well," Mr. Clinton said on Saturday in Iowa. "He was fabulous in the Bosnian peace process."

On Tuesday, he hailed General Clark as having "a sack full of guts" for a heroic rescue bid of State Department officials whose vehicle had slid off a Balkan mountainside.

The Clintons' promotion for General Clark's candidacy has set off speculation about their long-term strategy. Conservative commentators have suggested that the Clintons were encouraging weak candidates to enter the race so that they would lose, leaving the Democratic field open for Senator Clinton in 2008.

Asked today about some of that speculation, including whether he might be a stalking horse for Senator Clinton and might wind up as her vice presidential candidate, either next year or in 2008, General Clark said he had heard the talk but dismissed it. He also said he had no interest in being vice president.

"If you're concerned about national security affairs," he said, "then the right place for the person who wants to be commander in chief is to be the commander in chief."

General Clark also said he had not had much of a relationship with the Clintons. "I had, like, seen him twice in my life before he became president," he said.

Sen. Hillary Clinton [AP Photo]

Even though they both grew up in Arkansas, General Clark wrote in his book, "Waging Modern War" (PublicAffairs, 2001), that he met Mr. Clinton for the first time in 1965 at a student conference at Georgetown University. He met Hillary Clinton in 1983 in France at a conference of French-American Young Leaders. The Clarks and the Clintons had dinner once when Mr. Clinton was governor of Arkansas and, as General Clark told it, "I had talked to him once on the phone as I was passing through the state a few years later, but that was about it."

Still, early in the Clinton administration, Mr. Clark was named a senior aide to the joint chiefs of staff. It was not then clear whether Mr. Clinton had a hand in the promotion, but General Clark wrote in his memoirs that he had heard later from a fellow officer that Mr. Clinton had referred to him as "my friend, Wes Clark."

General Clark did not at that time dispel the impression that the two were friends. The similarities in their histories led people to think that there must have been a relationship. One rumor then circulating had it that Mr. Clark had double-dated with Mr. Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

The stories became so common that after several weeks, General Clark did start setting the record straight. And in reality, Pentagon officials said, General Clark's promotions were approved by President Clinton but not initiated by him.

With the extent of his connection to the president unclear, several accounts said that the impression grew that General Clark circumvented the Pentagon to go to his friends at the White House.

"There was a belief at the Pentagon that this was happening," a senior Clinton administration official said today. "But this was wildly overstated."

Still, this belief fueled resentment toward General Clark among some top Pentagon officials. Military officials described that resentment as based in part on jealousy and partly on the fact that General Clark - first in his class at West Point, achingly ambitious and with a knack for getting good press - had not fit in with the military culture.

From that assignment as senior aide to the joint chiefs, General Clark took on a succession of promotions, culminating in his assignment as NATO supreme allied commander. But his end came unceremoniously.

It was July 1999, shortly after General Clark had led the successful war in Kosovo - though as he wrote in his memoirs, he could not claim victory because the administration had been reluctant to call it a war.

In any case, General Clark was forced to retire early by Pentagon officials who, according to several accounts, tricked President Clinton.

Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the White House that they had to find a spot for Joe Ralston, a popular Air Force general and right-hand man to William S. Cohen, the secretary of defense. General Ralston had been denied the promotion to chairman of the Joint Chiefs after admitting to adultery 10 years earlier while separated from his wife.

These members, according to several accounts, told President Clinton that General Clark's regular tour of duty as NATO supreme allied commander was up and that they wanted General Ralston to succeed him.

"Clinton signed on, apparently not realizing that he had been snookered," David Halberstam wrote in his book, "War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals" (Scribner, 2001).

"Clark was devastated by the news, a world-class slap in the face, a public rebuke of almost unparalleled proportions," Mr. Halberstam wrote. He added that Samuel Berger, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, had told General Clark that the Pentagon had fooled the White House.

General Clark wrote that later, President Clinton had told him privately, "I had nothing to do with it."

£®By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE, Courtesy the New York Times£©

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