Thirteen years ago, Wesley Clark won a war. It’s been all downhill since — from demeaning rank-and-file troops to shilling for shady data-brokers to blowing a presidential campaign. But tonight at 8 on NBC, Clark may have hit rock bottom: He’s hosting a reality TV show.
Clark, a retired four-star Army general, will be the military representative on Stars Earn Stripes, a Survivor-style show that puts celebrities through the rigor of (fake) combat. Clark will judge the physical prowess of celebrities like boy-band also-ran Nick Lachey; action-movie C-lister Terry Crews; and Sarah Palin’s husband Todd. The show is treacly, exploitative military porn, according to the early reviews. And Clark is like a martial Simon Cowell, only less frightening: “He has an easy manner on camera,” judged The New York Times, and, as you’d expect, plenty of real-world knowledge to bring to these fake soldier games.”
This seems like a bewildering career decision from a man who finished first in his West Point class and became a Rhodes scholar. But ever since retiring, Clark’s made a second career out of pimping his first. He shilled for dubious tech products before turning himself into a product — that is, attempting to become president of the United States within three years of getting fired from his job running NATO’s Kosovo war. Along the way, he inadvertently bolstered the case of his many, many military critics, who considered him a clown. Oh, and according to one of his subordinates, he came close to starting World War III.
Almost as soon as Clark took his uniform off in 2000, he began lending his reputation to prospective military tech. While lots of officers become defense-contractor shills, Clark’s favored products trended toward the bizarre or the useless. One company, WaveCrest Laboratories, made an electric bicycle that Clark pitched as a vehicle for soldiers fighting in “tight alleys in urban areas.” He joined the board of a Acxiom, the database company that sells your address and phone number to telemarketers. After 9/11, Acxiom hawked its infobrokering as a terror-stopper, with Clark’s eager help. But then he decided his greatest product was himself — as president.
Clark’s 2004 campaign seems like a fever dream. Democrats loved the guy not for who he was — he has never held an elective office; and Kosovo was not a war that the public cared about — but because he was the rare general who was openly a Democrat, especially in the first post-9/11 election. But when Clark entered the primaries, his greenness quickly showed: Not only was his announcement speech awkward, but his first press conference memorably featured a beleaguered Clark wailing to an aide, “Mary, help!” Not something you want to do when your chief selling point is your military experience.
But it wasn’t just Clark’s political inexperience that defined his doomed campaign. Clark seemed to believe the presidency belonged to him as a matter of rank. Shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Clark fielded a question about rival John Kerry’s Vietnam experience. “With all due respect,” Clark noted, “he’s a lieutenant and I’m a general.” The lieutenant, a politician with 30 years’ experience, trounced the general in the early voting.
Then came the vitriol Clark attracted from what was supposed to be his key constituency: the military. Almost as soon as Clark announced his candidacy, he faced a fierce and surprisingly personal attack from a man who ought to have been his ally: retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton. Shelton was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Clark ran the Kosovo war and a contemporary in the close-knit community of Army four-stars. Yet in a rare public remark during his retirement, Shelton derided Clark for unspecified “integrity and character issues” and said he wouldn’t vote for his fellow general. Their problems stemmed from a war in Kosovo that Clark — and few others — thought covered him in glory.
Shelton’s memoir, published in 2010, portrayed Clark as a blithering idiot who happened to be a Rhodes scholar and West Point valedictorian. Most accounts of the Kosovo war describe Clark’s plan to push the Serbs out of the beleaguered ethnic-Albanian province as a jumble of disconnected, escalating air strikes lacking strategic vision. (One monograph about the 78-day war was titled “Winning Ugly.”) Shelton’s beef was that Clark’s initial plan, with its “random and haphazard” bombing runs, was even worse. “A few days into the war, it became clear to me that General Clark had developed a very weak battle plan, one without a strategic plan and corresponding targets,” Shelton wrote. In the chairman’s telling, he had to fax Clark a better plan — the same one that would be criticized for its incoherence — and left it for the telegenic Clark to “brief well in front of the cameras.” Privately, Shelton seethed that Clark was “absolutely in it for whatever was best for Wes.”
Worse, as the Russians ultimately pulled their Serbian proxies back from Kosovo, they landed their own troops in Pristina Airport in the heart of the province. It was a provocative move — the Russian military line might demarcate a partition of Kosovo — one that risked the conflict between NATO and Russia that the Cold War successfully escaped. Clark ordered his man on the ground, British Lt. Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, to block the Russian access to the airport runways. “Sir,” Jackson recounted in his 2007 memoir, “I’m not starting World War III for you.” Clark called the dispute in to Washington, where Shelton backed Jackson. Within weeks of running a successful war, Clark was fired.
Clark’s war and his political future ended, but his record of putting his foot in his mouth continued. In 2008, he contended on cable news that the Saudis were behind the Sunni Awakening in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Wading back into the political waters, Clark made a tasteless argument about 2008 GOP nominee and war hero John McCain: “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.” It earned a rebuke from McCain’s rival, Barack Obama, and ensured Clark wouldn’t have a role in either the Obama campaign or the Obama administration.
To be fair, generals say uncouth things all the time; they shill for dubious military contractors all the time; and they’re all open to charges of outsized ambition. Many of the criticisms Clark faced for being an egghead were also directed at David Petraeus. But unlike Petraeus, Clark didn’t attract a lot of love from his soldiers. The late military gadfly David Hackworth described Clark as a “Perfumed Prince,” who “never paid his dues with the troops in the trenches and doesn’t understand the nitty-gritty of war or what motivates warriors down at the bayonet level.” Although, as Danger Room friend and Afghanistan veteran Richard Allen Smith points out, Clark did win the Silver Star in Vietnam for ordering his men to complete a counterattack after he had been shot four times by an AK-47.
Clark doesn’t have too many military protégés, a rarity for a senior general. A notable exception is Peter Chiarelli, who recently retired as the Army’s vice chief of staff. Among the things Chiarelli learned from Clark was “how not to handle himself,” according to Greg Jaffe and David Cloud’s book on generalship, The Fourth Star, which describes Clark as a “brusque, highly intelligent man who had made lots of enemies during his long Army career.”
Clark may not have been the greatest leader of men. Now he’ll have a chance to be the next best thing: a leader of reality-TV media mutants.