October 22, 2003

Gene Lyons, Political Columnist and Co-Author of "Hunting of the President," Chats with BuzzFlash About General Wesley Clark

The LNS has studied the propapunditgandists for a long
time. They are already trying to tell you that "most
Democrats prefer a candidate who was for the war but
now is not." Geez. They are going to expend a
tremendous load of hot air trying to twist the reality
of the Democratic Party today into something that fits
the script their corporate overlords limit them too
(e.g., promote to Democrats who do not fight back,
promote Democrats who can be more easily mocked). Yada
yada yada. Put wax in your ears and listen to the
internal sound. Does Dean (D-Jeffords) have Electoral
College weaknesses? Of course. Is Clark (D-NATO) a
political gamble? Of course. But they both stand for
something, they have both struck at the _resident
(hard) and they are both on the right side of history
on Iraq. It is a sad and strange time. The _resident
now has his first blow at Roe v. Wade. Remember, Mr.
Nada, Clinton vetoed partial birth ban twice and Gore
certainly would have as well. Still no difference, you
are not unintelligent so you must be ammoral not to
retract your lie of 2000. Meanwhile, the "vast
reich-wing conspiracy" is getting another Bush Cabal
LITE candidate ready for California: Dennis Miller
will challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA.) Yes, these
are strange and difficult days...Here is some
commentary on Clark, the Electoral College and the
rest of it from the brilliant Gene Lyons courtesy of


October 22, 2003

Gene Lyons, Political Columnist and Co-Author of "Hunting of the President," Chats with BuzzFlash About General Wesley Clark


Gene Lyons is one of BuzzFlash's favorite writers and
thinkers. He along with co-author Joe Conason wrote
the seminal book on how the right-wing tried to tear
down a duly elected and popular president and first
lady in The Hunting of the President. Always
insightful and to the point, we're honored to bring
you our third interview with Gene Lyons about another
intelligent Arkansas candidate, Wesley Clark, who is
seeking the presidency.

Gene Lyons won the National Magazine Award in 1980. He
has written extensively for Newsweek, Harper's, The
Nation, The New York Review of Books, Texas Monthly,
Entertainment Weekly, and many other magazines. His
books include The Higher Illiteracy (1988), Widow's
Web (1993), and Fools for Scandal (1996). Gene
currently writes a political column for the Arkansas

(Just a reminder: BuzzFlash has not endorsed any
Democratic candidate for the presidency in the
primaries. We believe that democracy should takes its
course. We try to run pieces on all the leading

* * *

BUZZFLASH: What's your take on how Ret. Gen. Wesley
Clark has shaken up the Democratic field?

GENE LYONS: I wrote a couple of columns in the summer
when the talk was starting, sort of urging Wesley
Clark to run. I suggested in a column that he ought to
hear the call of duty. Given the views that Clark had,
and his unique status and political gifts, I felt he
almost had a duty to run because his candidacy would
affect a lot of Democrats like an electrical charge.
And I think it has to the extent that people have
heard of him. The people who know about him and who
have heard of him, and are not committed to a
candidate, have been very turned on and excited by his
candidacy. I think that he has a reasonably good
chance to end up with the nomination.

BUZZFLASH: What advantages do you perceive, both
professionally and personally, that Clark brings to
the table that could really give him the edge in not
only getting the nomination, but also defeating Bush?

LYONS: What I wrote a long time ago was we didn't know
if Clark had the "political hunger." We didn't know if
his value as a symbol would be equaled by his value as
a politician -- as an actual candidate with the nuts
and bolts of going from town to town, trying to sell
yourself to people.

And some of those unknowns I think have been allayed.
I think what they call it in the army -- his command
presence -- is very noticeable. When you meet him,
even privately, one-on-one, or in small groups, his
personal charisma, which is very real and also very
different from Clinton's, is apparent.

It's also true that quality of command presence is
partly theatrical. You get to be a general partly by
acting like a general. You command respect by acting
authoritatively. At the same time, he's affable and

Clark's intellectual brilliance may be more apparent
than Clinton's, because Clark doesn't do the
"aw-shucks Southern country boy" act the way Clinton
can do it. So you're struck immediately with how
intelligent he is. At the same time, he listens to
people and pays attention to what they're saying, and
responds like a human being.

I want to be careful how I say this, but he has an
almost feline presence -- and by that I don't mean
"catty," as in bitchy. I mean like a big cat. I once
encountered a mountain lion in the Point Reyes
National Seashore in California, on a rainy day in
winter, when I was all by myself. We stood stock still
staring at each other for a few seconds. And there was
this moment of "Gee, that's a cougar, this is really
cool." And then an instant later, came the feeling of
"My God, that's a lion!" There's nothing between me
and him, no fence. Clark has a little bit of that kind
of presence. You sense a tremendous personal authority
about him held in and contained by self-discipline.
Not somebody to fuck with, is another way of putting

BUZZFLASH: You look at his background -- Rhodes
scholar, decorated war hero, Supreme Commander of
NATO. It gives him a unique position to criticize Bush
on terrorism and the decision to invade and continue
to occupy Iraq. It seems that his status allows him to
make those criticisms without looking as political as
the other candidates -- that Clark's basing his
criticism on professional experience.

LYONS: I think that it's hard to depoliticize a
candidacy. But I think one of his reasons for running
is his very obvious personal ambition, and I think
that's something he needs to be careful with. He's
clearly a very ambitious person. He clearly thinks
that he is among the best qualified people to be
President of the United States in his generation. I
happen to think he's probably right. But nevertheless,
people don't always react well to that quality in

I do think his concerns are honest. I think his
criticisms of Bush are exactly what he believes. One
reason that I think that is I have had an opportunity
to talk to him in a sort of a semi-private way.

Going all the way back to the summer of 2002, I got a
sense of how strong his feelings about Iraq were. Long
before it was clear that the administration was really
going to sell a war on Iraq, when it was just a kind
of a Republican talking point, early in the summer of
2002, Wesley Clark was very strongly opposed to it. He
thought it was definitely the wrong move. He conveyed
that we'd be opening a Pandora's box that we might
never get closed again. And he expressed that feeling
to me, in a sort of quasi-public way. It was a Fourth
of July party and a lot of journalists were there, and
there were people listening to a small group of us
talk. There wasn't an audience, there were just
several people around. There was no criticism I could
make that he didn't sort of see me and raise me in
poker terms. Probably because he knew a lot more about
it than I did. And his experience is vast, and his
concerns were deep.

He was right, too. How long ago was it that you were
hearing all this sweeping rhetoric from the Project
for a New American Century; that we were going to
essentially conquer the south of Asia, contain China,
and dominate the Middle East? And the United States
was going to stand astride the world like a colossus.
And all of a sudden, we invade a crummy, tin-pot,
little third-rate dictatorship like Iraq, and we've
already got more than we can handle. It's clear we're
not going to dominate the world. And the question is,
how in the world do we get out of there with our skins
intact? And how do we then find a foreign policy that
makes more sense?

BUZZFLASH: Do you think that the situation in Iraq is
going to play a significant role in the 2004 election
versus domestic issues and the economy?

LYONS: I think it is going to be a big issue. People
want to know how in the world we're going to get out
of there and not make things worse. I think
everybody's nervous about a precipitous pullout, but
there's also no reason to think things are going to be
markedly better by next fall. I think it's already
beginning to impact domestic issues, especially the
question of the budget. I think that a lot of people
who may not have felt this way before are beginning to
center on the question, "Is Bush in over his head?"

You always hear it expressed as a TV metaphor -- is
this guy ready for prime time? But then Bush gets in
office, and it suddenly occurs to you, "Well, gee,
he's not a game show host. He's supposed to run the
country." Does Bush know what he's doing? Do the
people around him have any sense of reality? Or are
they crackpot ideologues? I mean, I see them as
utopian fantasists myself. What the Disney people call
"imagineers" on a global scale. American foreign
policy has begun to resemble the scenario for a James
Bond film. And so I think, yes, for all those reasons
and more, I think the war's likely going to come down
on Bush's judgment.

BUZZFLASH: One of the things that Clark stressed when
he announced his candidacy for the Democratic
nomination was that criticizing George W. Bush is not
unpatriotic. And he is in that unique position of
being a decorated war hero and a general. It's hard to
call someone like that unpatriotic. But nonetheless,
if he gets the nomination or if he's asked to be a
vice presidential candidate, the right wing is going
to go after him.

LYONS: Absolutely.

BUZZFLASH: You're probably one of the most
well-informed journalists on how attack politics play
themselves out with a culpable media, based on your
extensive research and writing on the Clintons. How do
you think the right wing is going to go after Clark?
What can he expect? What advice would you give Clark
and the people who are working for him?

LYONS: Well, the outlines of it are already evident.
They're saying he's too tightly wrapped, which is kind
of akin to what they tried to do with John McCain.
They're saying he's a zealot and tends to become
unhinged. They're suggesting he's crazed with

I wrote in a column a couple of weeks ago that one of
their lines of attack would be to portray him as sort
of General Jack D. Ripper, who was the megalomaniacal
general in Dr. Strangelove who was so concerned with
his precious bodily fluids. And that's what I think
they will try to do. They might go all the way to the
edge of suggesting some kind of mental illness. I
don't think he's very vulnerable to that sort of

Clark gave a very interesting quote that I used in a
column in a profile in Esquire. He said the whole
question about running against George W. Bush boils
down to how much pain can you take. So I think he has
some idea of what's coming. I think he has some idea
that it will be shrill, it will come from that side of
the spectrum, and it will be harsh. I think they're
going to try to portray him as a crackpot and as
wildly ambitious, and therefore dangerous. The
right-wing will definitely label him an opportunist
and say he's switching parties simply to become
President and he's power-mad.

My view is that Clark's campaign -- any democratic
candidate's, really -- needs to take a page from the
Clinton '92 campaign, in which they set up a kind of a
counterintelligence staff which responded immediately
and hard to the attacks and lies. I suspect that,
given how good Clark is on his feet, and how clever he
is, he may be tempted to think he can go this alone --
that he himself can fend this stuff off by addressing
each smear one at a time and dealing with it. I don't
know if that's possible because the volume of it is
going to be beyond anything one person can cope with.

BUZZFLASH: Bush is no doubt going to run a two-sided
campaign where he is the friendly Texan trying to stay
above the fray, and all his minions such as Karl Rove
will be doing the dirty work. There's no better
example that what Bush's campaign did to John McCain,
claiming he only received medals just to make him feel
better for being a prisoner of war. Or, as you pointed
out, that he was mentally unsafe or unstable.

LYONS: That's what the Bushes do. George W. Bush plays
the affable back-slapper. And while he's slapping your
back, Rove and company are preparing the shiv.

People like you and me and most BuzzFlash readers are
always lamenting how people treat politics as if it is
a TV show, and one that they watch with only passing
attention. And so it does become a lot about
symbolism. And Bush just seems like -- as my mother
always used to say about Reagan -- too nice a fellow
for that kind of thing.

BUZZFLASH: BuzzFlash is not going to endorse any of
the Democratic candidates. And our position has always
been, bottom line, whoever is the Democratic nominee
to challenge Bush, in order to win, that candidate has
to do four things: 1) Define the terms of the debate
and the issues; 2) Defend themselves against the
right-wing attacks, wherever they come from; 3) Be
willing to go on the offensive and actually go after
Bush's credibility on some very key issues such as
Treasongate, the Iraq war, job losses, the deficit,
etc.; and 4) Not apologize for standing up for
Democratic positions and values, thereby activating
the Democratic base. Are you impressed with how
Clark's campaign is running? And do you foresee him
being able to execute those four components against

LYONS: In a word, yes. I'm like BuzzFlash -- I don't
really have a candidate. In fact, I sort of stayed
away from the Democratic race because I felt like 10
candidates (now nine since Sen. Bob Graham dropped
out) are too many to evaluate. I'm for the Democrat in
this race. That's been my sort of default position.
It's hard for me to imagine supporting Bush regardless
who the wins the Democratic nomination. I mean, the
record of failure to me is staggering. If Bush is a
success, how you would define failure?

In American political terms, I think Clark is doing
well or better than can be expected. I think he's
already out-run early expectations. People were saying
he was entering too late, and, all of a sudden, the
polls come out and he's one of -- if not the -- front
runners. The people on the Draft Wesley Clark website
were right about there being nine candidates running,
but more than half of the likely voters had made no
decision yet. So it was pretty clear that people were
not seeing what they wanted in the nine candidates.
And I think what most Democrats want most passionately
is somebody that can win.

BUZZFLASH: If Wesley Clark gets the nomination, it
upsets the Republican Southern strategy. Give our
readers a little bit of context and history to what
the Southern strategy is, and how Clark affects the
geo-political landscape and culture war.

LYONS: Well, basically the Southern strategy started
with Nixon in the late 60s. The idea was to convince
the core constituency -- Southern white men -- that
the Republican Party was their home and that the
Democrats were the women's party, the black people's
party, the homosexual party, the party of disgruntled
minorities who were anti-religious, anti-patriotic,
and anti-American, in a fundamental way. That
Democrats supported "race-mixing," immorality, and the
welfare state. It worked well enough to swing the
South to the Republicans in the wake of the Civil
Rights Act.

Lyndon Johnson is famous for having predicted this.
Dale Bumpers, the former Arkansas Senator, told me
that as a very young man he congratulated LBJ for
signing the Voting Rights Act of '64, and Johnson
said, "Well, just as long as you understand that the
whole South is going to be Republican in 10 years."
And it has worked for a long time.

But I think that as a person and as a symbol, Clark
has the potential to take all that away from the
right-wing. I might add that I also think that there
are an awful lot of genuine conservatives, in the
classical sense, who are uneasy about where Bush is
going. The conquer-the-world schemes, the giant
sinkhole of the federal budget. Some of the best
writing about Iraq has come from conservative or
libertarian columnists like Steve Chapman of the
Chicago Tribune or James Pinkerton of Newsday. Now
this is sad, but those conservatives aren't going to
listen to Carol Mosley Braun make the same criticism
as that coming from Wesley Clark, who is a Southerner
and a decorated military man. I think it's sad but
true. Again, I think it's a battle of symbols.

I think that in practical terms Clark puts several
Southern states back in play. Right now, Bush would be
very hard-put to win any of the states that Gore won
in the last election. So if you can take away from
Bush, or at least strongly compete in Arkansas, West
Virginia, Kentucky, possibly Georgia, Florida, with
all of its military people, you all of a sudden take
from Bush this air of invincibility and fundamentally
change the electoral map. When you look at it like
that you have to ask, how in the world is Bush going
to win this election? Where are his electoral votes
going to come from?

BUZZFLASH: There's this perception among progressives
and Democrats that because the Bush administration is
so right wing, and effectively all three branches of
government are in the control of the Republican Party,
that we're underdogs. But people forget that Gore won
the election by a half-million votes. And let's not
forget over 95,000 people cast their vote for Ralph
Nader in Florida, while Bush "won" by 537 votes. When
you look at the electoral map, the Democrats start out
much stronger than what you would think they do. I
think that the Democrats could feel a little bit more
aggressive and empowered based on those things. As
you've pointed out, if the Democratic candidate wins
every state that Gore won, all the Democrats have to
do is just pick off one more, whether it's Arkansas or
West Virginia, and the Democrats take the White House.

LYONS: Well, I've been reminding people of that all
along. But I also think Clark does more than that. My
subjective view was that culturally there was no way
that Dean, for example, could win in the South -- he
would be a complete non-starter. Dean has a terrific
line about this. He says he'd tell the pickup driving
set (a group that would include me, for what it's
worth) that they've been voting Republican for 30
years, and ask them "What have you got to show for
it?" Great line, but would they ever hear it at all
coming from a Vermont Yankee? I've got my doubts. And
that would allow the Republicans to spend a lot more
money in places like Missouri and Pennsylvania and
Michigan that are states that are very competitive.
And it would make it extremely difficult for Dean to
win in that he'd have to run the table in all the
other states and pick up one more state somewhere.

I'm just talking about pure symbolism now. I'm not
talking about the candidates or their virtues or
standards. The symbolism of Clark -- because we are
talking about a television show, after all, if we're
talking about a presidential campaign -- means you
have trouble finding a way for the Republicans to win.

I think Clark would bring back a lot of military
people. I think there's great disquiet among people of
the old-fashioned style of patriotism right now, and
it's looking for a place to go. And I think there's a
very good chance it would go to Clark. I think that he
would have a strong chance to unite that which has
been divided.

I'm not going to tell you everything's wonderful in
the South. But the amazing thing is how well the South
adapted personally and culturally, in a day-to-day
way, to all of the changes brought about forcibly by
federal law in the 60s as a result of various civil
rights acts. People manage to get along most of the
time, and there is a much smaller role that racial
hatred and racial prejudice plays out in everyday life
in the Southern quadrant of the country than it did 30
or 40 years ago -- in public, on the job, in sports,
and other areas of daily life.

You almost wouldn't know it from the campaigns of the
Republican Party that used the Southern strategy.
There is more open opportunity and more genuine
friendship among and between different racial groups
than ever before. The Republican campaigns in some
parts of the South would make you think that everyone
was a George Wallace supporter, or would be happy to
vote for George Wallace, which isn't true.

Even so, many people that won those kinds of elections
are sort of embarrassed by all that -- even people who
voted for Wallace are ashamed. Arkansas Republican
Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, is neither racist nor
reactionary. I mean, yes, there's a subdued minority
who are both of those things. They were the core of
the Clinton haters, for example. But remember, Clinton
always won.

BUZZFLASH: I get the sense that there's something
going below the radar, and it has a lot to do with the
surge of Dean and progressives becoming more active.
Progressives feel there needs to be a primary goal of
knocking Bush out of office, and, secondly,
progressives could be more strategic in how they
approach presidential politics, at least. There is no
question that progressives should continue to work on
issue advocacy locally and in grassroots campaigns.
But when it comes to the presidential election, voting
for a third party is, in fact, helping the
Republicans. The difference between a Republican and a
Democrat really is quite devastating, as the record of
Bush would indicate. Do you get the sense that there's
an undercurrent of resentment among several groups
that are willing to focus on knocking Bush out?

LYONS: Yes, I do. I think that a lot of people are
thinking straight because they feel so endangered by
this administration. Fundamental American values seem
endangered in a way that they've not seemed before. I
think people on the left are going to be more serious
about the coming election. They don't want to play
around with their own kind of silly symbolism.

Let me suggest another way of putting it. One of the
things I've said is I think that Bill Clinton
symbolically represented the so-called Woodstock
values of the Democratic Party. A lot of people felt
that there was some kind of cultural divide. I think
that a Clark candidacy has the capacity to close that
divide. I've never shaken hands with his son -- I
wouldn't know him if he knocked on my door -- but the
kid's a Hollywood screenwriter, and his dad's a
four-star general.

Some of those cultural divides start to close, and
people are prioritizing in a useful way. They're
putting some of their own symbolic but relatively
trivial issues aside -- identity and gender issues,
for example -- and saying we need someone in the
country who can beat Bush. We need someone in office
who will defend American independence and freedom, and
would defend us physically if it came to that, and who
knows how to do that, but who doesn't think that we
need an American imperium and don't have to conquer
the world.

I think that Wesley Clark offers a tremendous
opportunity for people to think clearly about foreign
policy and re-think how important all kinds of
symbolic and "lifestyle issues" are to them -- whether
it doesn't make more sense to put some of those things
in your back pocket for a time and work on them later
after you've dealt with the big threat, which is a guy
who is bankrupting the nation and getting us involved
in foreign entanglements -- to use Gen. George
Washington's words -- of a kind we're not likely to
get out of very easily.

Let's just look at the situation like this: How much
of a partisan do you have to be to look at George W.
Bush and Wesley Clark standing side by side and say to
yourself, "I'd pick George W. Bush to lead this
country." How partisan do you have to be to decide
that Bush is more qualified in a national emergency --
a guy who can scarcely speak in complete sentences --
to handle a crisis over a decorated war hero, a Rhodes
Scholar, a retired four star general, and the former
Supreme Commander of NATO?

BUZZFLASH: Gene Lyons, always good to talk politics
with you. Thank you for your thoughts.

LYONS: Thank you.


* * *


Gene Lyons Columns [LINK]

Get "The Hunting of the President: The 10-Year
Campaign To Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton" by Gene
Lyons and Joe Conason [LINK]

BuzzFlash Interview, Gene Lyons on "The Hunting of the
President," Al Gore, and the right-wing attack
machine, November 2001 [LINK]

BuzzFlash Interviews Gene Lyons: Part II on Arkansas
Politics, January 22, 2002 [LINK]

Posted by richard at October 22, 2003 10:15 PM