Thursday, January 1, 2004

POLITICS

POLITICS

Posted By on Thu, Jan 1, 2004 at 4:00 AM

TRUE GRITS: On his second day of a Southern-states "True Grit" tour, General Wesley Clark, Democratic candidate for president, greeted local supporters at a Peabody fundraiser Tuesday morning He later appeared at a public rally at AutoZone Park. Among those at the fundraiser (l to r): lawyer Al Harvey, state Senator Steve Cohen, businessman Chip Armstrong.

A FIGHTING CHANCE? Don’t count out Wesley Clark for the top job. Or for the second job, either. As for the first premise, the former NATO commander, first-year Democrat, and late-blooming presidential candidate demonstrated with two appearances in Memphis Tuesday that he’s learning the game of politics (and the lingo of his adopted party). He’s still a viable long-shot alternative to both Howard Dean and George W. Bush. As for the second premise, Clark pointedly declined to rule himself out as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Democratic frontrunner Dean. ("The presidency is what we're after, though. There's no point in talking about anything else. That's what I told Dean," Clark said in an interview.) Meanwhile, the candidate is picking up real and potential across-the-board support in Tennessee ranging from Rickey Peete’s North Memphis mafia to the inner council of Governor Phil Bredesen in Nashville. Peete, state representatives Larry Miller and Ulysses Jones, and city council chairman-designate Joe Brown were on hand at a morning fundraiser at The Peabody. So were state Senator Steve Cohen and Shelby County Commissioner Michael Hooks. So was Assessor Rita Clark. So was Gale Jones Carson, a top aide to Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. So were entrepreneurial presences Henry Turley and Karl Schledwitz. So, tellingly, were former Democratic chairmen and erstwhile rivals John Farris and Sidney Chism. Absent but presumed present at a later Nashville event were Bredesen insiders Stuart Brunson, Byron Trauger, and Johnny Hays, who will, it is said, play major campaign roles for Clark in advance of the February 10th Tennessee primary. Whether former Vermont governor Dean will do well enough in the forthcoming Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary to make the rest of the primary season a cakewalk is anybody’s guess. But Clark is developing his chops just in case. At the Peabody fundraiser, Clark made an obvious effort to broaden his resume -- heavy on foreign-policy experience -- with talk of domestic issues. He buttonholed Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, with whom he had an extended conversation peppered with phrases like “urban black youth” and “minority small business initiatives.” Later, in an address to the 200 or so people who showed up for a rally at AutoZone Park, Clark continued such talk, embroidering it with references to “affirmative actionÉdiversity, and inclusiveness” and joining all that to an emphasis on the “values, both Southern values and American values” which he learned, he said, growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas. The circumstances of his upbringing, of course, constitute the bottom line, even more so than his experience in successfully prosecuting a war in the late Ô90s against ethnic cleansing and the Serbs. As a Southerner with an impeccable military background, he has a fighting chance, south of the Mason-Dixon lin, to depose President George W. Bush, whom he calls “one of the most divisive and polarizing leaders in American history” -- thereby to fill what he perceives as a need for “better leadership” in America. Some of his local supporters see Clark not only as a possible winner against Bush but as someone who could boost other Democrats running in Tennessee. “We’ve got some races down here, and we need somebody who’s willing to campaign in Tennessee and can do so successfully,” opened Farris, who doesn’t see Dean as the answer to his prayers. Clark had got what supporter Paula Casey called a “rock-star” reception at AutoZone, and worked a passable call-and-response with the crowd. Later on, reflecting on the morning in the privacy of an AutoZone box, he agreed with an observer’s assessment that, with practice, he’s learning the new game of politics. At one point he held his palms out and demonstrated the difference between his left and right hands. The left one is whole; the right one was shredded during his military combat in Vietnam as a company commander. Clark demonstrated that his right index finger is shorter than its left-hand counterpart: The metacarpal bone was shattered (later to be rebuilt) and the muscle attached to it was, he said, blasted by a Viet Cong bullet all the way up the length of his arm, exiting his body somewhere near the shoulder blade. “I can’t shoot a basketball,” he said, “but there’s nothing wrong with my right-hand handshake.” Indeed, there’s not, as he demonstrated on Tuesday, and there’s no doubt that this determined warrior and athlete (he swims and exercises rigorously each morning) and former Rhodes Scholar is willing and able to adapt as needed in the pursuit of his newest goal. And, in the revised climate of opinion following the U.S. capture of Saddam Hussein and recent hints of economic revival, Clark’s foreign-policy credentials make it at least theoretically possible that his party might ultimately adapt to him.

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