Not so long ago, Gen. Wesley Clark was thought to be out of the running in Sen. Barack Obama's vice presidential footrace. On June 10, the folks over at NBC's "First Read" blog pointedly excluded Clark from their rundown of potential Democratic running mates.
Later that same day, this reporter happened to snag a phone interview with Clark. Toward the end of our wide-ranging conversation, he let fly with a previously unheard criticism of John McCain's national security experience -- specifically, that the Arizona Republican was "untested and untried" -- that I immediately recognized as the proper headline for the article.
I had no way of knowing, then or now, whether the strident but authoritative-sounding critique from the four-star general was part of his calculated strategy for getting his name back in the headlines. But after meeting and chatting with Clark in person last week and then reading about his Sunday 'Face the Nation' appearance -- in which he doubled down on his rhetoric, saying McCain's getting "shot down in [his] plane" doesn't qualify him to be president -- I'm steadily less inclined to think this was all part of some well-considered master plan. Instead, it appears that Clark is winging his second berth as a vice-presidential contender, and is perhaps proving every bit as erratic a campaigner as McCain was an airman.
To begin with, Clark's aides had stressed to me before our first interview that it was being granted primarily for the purpose of talking about national security threats, not politics. The message: they weren't particularly interested in making headlines for their boss.
But the fact remains that headlines are precisely what Clark earned with his quip. After his follow-up appearances on television went reasonably well, Obama's image-conscious advance team seated Clark directly next to the Senator during one of the candidate's panel discussions with former military leaders. Suddenly, the man who had fallen from speculation was back at the cool kids' table. And even when the reporters wondered whether his attacks would work, they generally conceded Clark's standing to make such claims.
Hoping for breaking news lightning to strike twice, I trailed the General to an event at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies last week. While Clark repeated the "untested and untried" line from our interview during his speech, he mostly played it safe (there weren't many cameras in the hall, or much press that I could see). Approaching him after the event ended, Clark surprised me again, admitting that his indelible line of attack on McCain "just popped out of nowhere." He cracked a sly grin and admitted to some satisfaction at the fact that his line "just went all over."
But improvisation can giveth as well as taketh away. Like a jazz musician who takes one too many choruses for a solo, Clark's latest shot from the hip is making some eyes roll among those in his intended audience. After Clark's Sunday dig at McCain, which at minimum seemed a touch too flip about the perils of combat, Obama communications director distanced the campaign from the remarks. [See update below.] (Meanwhile, any notion that Clark is an inconsistent politician will only reinforce lingering doubts from the 2004 Democratic primaries about Clark's skill on the stump.)
The McCain campaign clearly sees Clark's trash-talking as an opportunity to paint their candidate as a victim. Over the weekend, the Arizona Republican's press outift blast emailed a rebuttal to Clark's Face the Nation appearance. Then McCain's communications director cried foul, saying the attack "demeaned" his candidate's military service. And today, the campaign held a conference call with the "McCain Truth Squad," a group "aimed at countering the recent attacks on John McCain's military record."
But on the other hand, inspiring an opposition conference call -- much less a "squad" of any kind -- is truly the sincerest form of flattery in today's politics. Even if Clark proves too streaky a no. 2 hitter for Obama -- and despite the fact that First Read is once again down on his chances -- Gen. Clark has probably earned himself a place as a role player between now and November.
UPDATE: Obama spokesman Bill Burton has issued a statement that reads:
"As he's said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain's service, and of course he rejects yesterday's statement by General Clark."