WASHINGTON -- As policy director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1995, Wesley K. Clark accompanied President Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, on a trip to try to sell a peace plan for Bosnia to leaders in Europe.
Settling into a small Air Force plane, Clark started to make small talk. "Nice suit," he quipped to Lake.
Lake gestured to Clark's attire -- Army greens adorned with a general's three stars, ribbons and a shoulder combat patch. "I'll trade you," he said.
Clark realized then that he was wearing "the ultimate power suit," as he would later write, describing his uniform as an ensemble "connoting authority and experience and helping its wearer stand out in a crowd."
Clark hung up his fatigues in 2000, when he retired after serving as supreme allied commander in Europe and leading NATO to victory in Kosovo, its first-ever military campaign. Now, as he travels America, Clark is hoping the luster of that career will again help him stand out -- this time in a field of Democrats seeking the presidency -- and bestow on this political newcomer and latecomer an air of trustworthy leadership.
Initially at least, the combination of resume and celebrity -- thanks to his gig as a military analyst for CNN -- proved an appealing formula, vaulting Clark, 58, to the front of the pack in some national polls just after he entered the race last month. He received a big dose of financial aid and attention -- fueled by Internet buzz and by reporters' interest in the newest candidate.
But that standing appears to have hit a plateau, according to polls, and the political rookie has had his share of stumbles. His conflicting remarks about his stance on the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq threatened to derail his candidacy even before he kissed his first baby. And some not-too-distant statements in praise of the Bush administration have raised doubts about the true convictions of a man who announced his bid for the Democratic nomination before he registered with the party.
In addition, a mixed reaction from former military colleagues, including sharp criticism from a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised questions about character and judgment.
As Clark tries to acquaint the public with his views beyond national security, giving speeches on such issues as the economy and health care, voters are trying to see past the uniform he once wore. Many are trying to assess whether the telegenic Rhodes scholar is a product of wishful thinking by Bush's foes or a leader who can bring the same strength of will to boosting the economy and protecting the homeland as he did to stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
"The guy is one of the most extraordinary, talented, thoughtful, balanced leaders I've ever encountered," says a longtime friend, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "But I have no idea how well he'll do."
Certainly, Clark's sterling military credentials -- starting with his place at the top of his West Point class and including service in Vietnam, for which he volunteered and earned the Purple Heart and Silver Star -- are seen as a potent asset at a time of national security fears and a war effort that has lost much public support. He challenges the notion that Democrats are less reliable on foreign affairs and national security.
Last month, Clark's team released his performance evaluations dating to his first year at West Point, all of them wildly glowing, and plans TV spots that will highlight his biography.
That biography -- especially his command of 19 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a 78-day war to stop the killing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic -- lends him a measure of credibility in his attacks on Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
"I learned in the United States Army, in my military career, how to stand up to dictators," he said in the presidential debate Oct. 26. "I put my finger in the chest of a dictator and told him that if he didn't shape up, we'd bomb him. And when he didn't shape up, we did. And he's in The Hague now awaiting trial for war crimes."
Still, a rare commander who won a war but lost his job, Clark earned little favor from top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who relieved him of his job prematurely in 2000, saying, for the record, that he had to get Clark's successor in the job for bureaucratic reasons.
Many who know Clark describe him as brilliant, ambitious and hard-working. But some also regard him as so independent-minded and relentless that he would at times flout the chain of command and cozy up to top civilian leaders to get what he wanted.
"Wes is a guy who will bring down some thunderbolts once he takes the bit in his teeth," says one associate who's worked with Clark over the years.
After helping negotiate the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war, Clark pressed the military to be more aggressive in enforcing the accords. He sided with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and strained his ties to the Pentagon hierarchy, which favored a more cautious approach.
In the 1999 effort to drive Milosevic from Kosovo, he lobbied for the use of ground troops and low-flying Apache attack helicopters. In doing so, he clashed with Pentagon bosses and peers -- and President Bill Clinton -- who wanted to limit the mission to an air war to avoid U.S. casualties.
"The administration was scared to death of casualties at a time when the president was being impeached," says Robert S. Gelbard, Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans at the time who agreed with Clark's stance.
One of Clark's aides at NATO headquarters said he was surprised by the friction between Clark and his Pentagon colleagues and by the hostility directed toward him by those such as Cohen.
"The top brass fought him every step of the way," said the aide, who is still in the Army. "As he wanted to escalate, they would slow him down. It seemed like he was fighting a lot more than just Milosevic."
As it turned out, neither ground troops nor Apaches proved necessary for a victory without a single U.S. combat casualty. But Gelbard says he thinks the administration's resistance to such tactics prolonged the war.
Retired Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs who hired Clark as his director of strategic plans, has had only praise for his former aide. But the harshest criticism of Clark has come from Shalikashvili's successor, retired Gen. Henry H. Shelton.
Joint Chiefs chairman during the Kosovo war, Shelton said last month that Clark had been asked to resign early from his NATO post because of "integrity and character issues." Shelton has refused to elaborate.
In the debate last month, Clark likened Shelton's swipe to "McCarthyism" and said that although he had a significant policy disagreement with Shelton, he had "no idea" why the retired general would make such a remark.
One person close to Shelton said the general perceived that Clark at times was furtively going around him and appealing to top officials at the State Department and White House to achieve what he wanted, and arguing his case -- whether for ground troops or additional aircraft -- in the news media.
"This makes military guys nuts and secretaries of defense nuts," says the Shelton confidant. "Clark thought he had not only a right to use different paths of communication, but a responsibility."
One longtime Clark aide, retired Col. Stephanie Hoehne, said she was "dumbfounded" by Shelton's recent remarks.
"General Clark is one of the most moral people I have encountered in my military career," Hoehne says. "He says what he means, sometimes to the point of bluntness."
In his book on the Kosovo campaign, Waging Modern War, Clark recounts meetings with top civilian officials, noting that they were generally conducted with Pentagon approval. But in one instance, he wrote, word of his presence in the West Wing infuriated Shelton.
Within the Army, says the person close to Shelton, Clark earned a reputation as a self-promoter and "political general," someone who tried to cultivate connections to get ahead.
Some Clark friends said his elite academic background was also a source of resentment. At West Point, Clark met his goal of graduating first in his class of 579 cadets. He then studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.
"He wasn't just one of the boys," McCaffrey says. "He was so beautifully educated, so well-spoken, so wired [to influential people]. Show me an infantryman who's a Rhodes scholar, and there's anxiety about the guy."
Still, at least one incident, in which Clark posed for photos and swapped caps in 1994 with Serbian Gen. Ratko Mladic, who would be indicted as a war criminal, caused even his admirers to question his judgment and see him as a bit unpredictable. McCaffrey concedes that Clark's photo op was a misstep, for which Clark apologized.
"It did him a lot of damage," McCaffrey says.
But he defends Clark's intentions, saying he himself has dealt with "some of the most loathsome people on the face of this earth" to try to reduce the threat of such murderers through diplomatic means.
Driven from the start
Even as a young boy, moving from Chicago to Little Rock, Ark., after his father died when Clark was not yet 4, he was focused and ambitious. He overcame a speech impediment that he thinks may have come from grief over the death of his father, Benjamin Kanne, a lawyer and Democratic alderman from a large Jewish family.
His mother remarried, raised her son as a Baptist (though he later converted to Catholicism) and kept from him his father's Jewish heritage to protect him from the anti-Semitism she had witnessed, Clark wrote in his 2001 book.
In high school and at West Point, Clark was captain of the swim team and a student noticed for his intellect and will.
How those traits might serve him as a presidential hopeful is still unknown. Clark tells audiences, "Democracy demands discussion, disagreement and dissent."
Seeming to defend his own penchant for bending rules, he declares, "There is nothing more American -- nothing more patriotic -- than speaking out, questioning authority and holding your leaders accountable."
Some close to Clark, who became an investment banker after leaving the military, say his late entry in the race was due, in part, to hesitation from his wife, Gertrude, who has lived in so many places that she knows basic pleasantries in nine languages.
"After traveling around the world for 34 years, this was going to be their time to settle in, make money and live a different kind of life," says Alan Patricof, a co-chairman of Clark's finance committee.
The late start has dictated his campaign tactic: forgoing the early Iowa caucuses, where former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri have sizable support, and running a national campaign based on the notion, backed by some polls, that Clark stands the best chance of beating Bush.
But Clark has not made much of a splash in other states with early contests.
"This guy really has broad-based appeal," says Skip Rutherford, a Clinton associate who is helping Clark. "How you translate that into primary victories -- I think that's a challenge."