Thursday, January 29, 2004
Clark Comes Calling
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark pitched himself to military veterans and other New Mexicans on Wednesday as a kindred spirit and middle-class American who taped up his car muffler when he couldn't afford to replace it.
In a speech before about 600 supporters at an American Legion Post in Albuquerque, and later in an interview, Clark flayed the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq while the domestic economy withered.
And he tried to set himself apart from the others vying for the Democratic presidential nomination as a political outsider who cares about middle income Americans and understands them.
Clark came into the American Legion Post 99, stripped off his suit jacket and introduced himself in Spanish.
"Continuamos en inglés, por favor?" Clark asked. Then he launched, in fiery English, into an onslaught on President Bush and the Republican Party on Iraq, the economy and what he called a secretive White House.
"We need leadership that's not afraid to lay it out there," Clark said.
Clark said his career in the Army taught him to live by modest means and treat everyone fairly, regardless of their race or gender.
"We're ordinary people," he said. "And this country is about us."
He received two standing ovations, once when he said his career has been based on equal rights and again when he said military men understand that war is a last resort.
Clark was the first of the Democrats to arrive in New Mexico after Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, arriving Wednesday afternoon from Oklahoma and departing several hours later for Arizona.
Henry Cisneros, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, campaigned Wednesday in Albuquerque and Santa Fe for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
He shall return
More presidential candidates start arriving Friday, with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean scheduling an evening event in Albuquerque.
Clark tied for third in New Hampshire, and his campaign managers have said he has to win New Mexico on Tuesday or at least finish a strong second.
So even though New Mexico is one of the smaller of the seven states with caucuses and primaries on Tuesday, Clark said he will be back three more times.
He is battling another military veteran, front-runner Kerry, for veterans' votes. And each of the men on the New Mexico ballot wants to be able to say he won the most Hispanic state among the Tuesday's "Super Seven."
Clark told the crowd in Albuquerque of his humble beginnings and how getting an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point changed his life.
"I grew up in pretty modest surroundings," Clark said in an interview after his speech. After his father died when he was 4, his mother made $30 a week at a bank and he and his mother lived with his grandfather, a saw sharpener, he said. "No one in our family ever had any money."
Clark has recently declared assets of at least $2.6 million, with his income boosted by lobbying contracts after his retirement. But his 30-year military career was never lucrative, and he rarely topped $50,000 in annual earnings.
"At one point, I was a full colonel and I was living in a house trailer out in the Mojave desert," Clark said. He said he took tape to his car muffler when he couldn't afford a new one and once spent 30 days rebuilding a car.
"That's why I know what it's like to be close to the edge financially," Clark said.
Clark told the crowd that a family of four making $50,000 or less would never pay income tax and that he would raise the minimum wage to $7 an hour.
If he's elected, Clark said he would give grants of $6,000 a year toward college tuition and that he would fund a $100 billion jobs program.
Against the war
He also talked about religious faith and rapped the Republican Party for using Christian rhetoric to support uncharitable policies.
"If you listen to politics today," Clark said, "you'll find that there's one political party that, if you listen to them talk, you'd think that they are connected directly, by a hot line, to the Lord God Almighty up there. Not everybody practices what they preach."
Clark repeated what have become themes of his campaign: that invading Iraq was wrong, that Bush's leadership has cost jobs, and that a soldier can lead the country better than a politician.
One Army veteran in the crowd, Albuquerque lawyer Charlie Moore, attended West Point with Clark and said he is sold on his leadership ability.
"I competed with him for grades but never could catch up," Moore said. "I believe with his character and his intelligence he can lead the country."
Clark did not talk about the imminent closure of some military bases in the country, but in an interview he said he believes the base-closing process works. At the same time, communities that lose bases must be protected, he said.
Clark rapped Bush for pushing for an invasion of Iraq when intelligence did not support a conclusion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
"In this case, we had a president who came to office determined to go after Saddam Hussein and leaned real hard on the intelligence community," Clark said. "It was inferred that he had these weapons."
David Kay, the former U.S. weapons inspector, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that flaws in U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities were at fault for confusion about what threat Saddam actually posed.
Clark said Kay is being scapegoated.
"They want David Kay and the intelligence community to take the heat for bad intelligence," Clark said, "when in reality most of us who had seen the intelligence knew it wasn't the intelligence. It was the policy that used the intelligence and hyped it and stretched the threat."