Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

America Decides 2004 As Youth, General and Now Candidate, Wesley Clark is the Perennial Outsider by

December 18, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Wesley Clark pats the yarmulke on his head, telling the congregants of Temple Emeth, “It feels really good to be here and to wear this.”

Then, with unbridled enthusiasm, he stuns the room by explaining why he became a Roman Catholic.

Gen. Clark, the Reagan voter running as a Democrat, the soldier who waged diplomacy, the peacemaker who loves a good scrap, enjoys nothing better than confounding expectations.

He is doing just that by creeping up through the ranks of nine Democratic presidential candidates to reach second in the polls in some states, and raising enough money to keep him comfortable through March.

The latecomer, whose candidacy some dismissed as a vanity bid, now is jockeying with Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri as the likeliest candidate to challenge front-runner Howard Dean in the February stretch.

Jewish supporters say Clark is best positioned to stanch what some fear might be a massive Jewish defection to President Bush’s camp in November 2004. Clark’s solid pro-Israel pronouncements and history in uniform, they say, are the best Democratic bet against Bush’s tough-on-terror image and his rapport with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

While there are no poll numbers identifying the level of Jewish support for individual candidates, Clark has had successful fund-raisers among Jewish supporters in New York, California, Florida and Chicago.

One New York City fund-raiser with Jewish supporters in October netted over $1 million for the campaign, a Clark spokesman said.

“There wasn’t a candidate that could beat Bush until Clark,” says Michael Hoffman, a Chicago Web designer who started Jews for Clark. “He has a niche. Some of the other candidates, especially Dean, worry a lot of people, especially when it comes to fighting terrorism.”

Clark reportedly is President Clinton’s anointed favorite: Two of Clark’s top campaign advisers, Eli Segal and Ron Klain, are Jewish veterans of the Clinton administration.

Yet Clark carefully has cultivated his image as an outsider, priding himself on never having held political office. That has led some to dismiss Clark as a political lightweight. But supporters say it’s key to understanding the candidate’s rise.

“Most of us like Clark because he was not a politician,” says Denyse Rackel of Cleveland, who founded Women for Clark.

Clark links his outsider status at least tangentially to his Jewish background. His Jewish father, Benjamin Kanne, died in 1948, when Clark was 4. Within months, his non-Jewish mother, Veneta, moved back to her hometown of Little Rock, Ark, from Chicago.

His mother feared that Clark’s Jewish background would compound his alienation — so she never told him about it.

“We were Austrian, she kept on saying,” Clark recalled in a recent interview with JTA.

Clark said his mother told him, “I don’t know much about your father’s family. We never talked much about it.”

When Clark was 24 and he found out about his Jewish connection — through his father’s relatives, who contacted him while he was studying in England — he confronted his mother. She broke down crying, he said.

Clark said the prejudice against his father, which his mother had witnessed, had affected her.

“She said, ‘When your father and I were married, or when we dated before we were married, there were restaurants we didn’t go to, there were clubs we couldn’t belong to, there were vacation resorts we weren’t welcome at,’ ” Clark said.

Compounding the alienation he felt in Little Rock were Clark’s early memories of the warm embrace of his extended Jewish family in Chicago.

“His first four years, there was a lot of warmth,” recalls his cousin Harriet Salk, who is 16 years Clark’s senior. “We used to all get together Friday afternoon. Men would play pinochle, women would sit and talk.”

Clark still retains memories of the Friday gatherings at his grandmother’s apartment.

“I was the baby there. I was the baby of the cousins,” he says. “I remember being in my grandmother’s house, I remember the big salami that hung in the closet, she had a piano that people played, she had a candy dish — I liked the candy dish. And I remember the grown-ups talked.”

Clark’s father, described by Salk as a “tall, imposing man,” died of a heart attack on a Friday evening after one such gathering.

“He had had a check-up that day and everything was fine,” Salk recalls.

Despite his ignorance of his own background, Clark’s sense of himself as an outsider sparked an affinity for Little Rock’s Jews.

An accomplished swimmer, the teenaged Clark preferred a summer job as a lifeguard at the Jewish country club to the same job at the country club that barred Jews.

Clark acknowledges that he has a contrarian, mischievous streak. He got into fights as a boy, and in high school, he says, “I did some of the usual prankish things.”

He also was driven. Jay Heyman, a classmate at Hall High School in Little Rock, remembers that by age 14 Clark already was talking of going to West Point.

“Even when there was nothing going on, he was busy at work with books, while those of us less academically inclined might have been socializing,” says Heyman, now a Reform rabbi in San Francisco. “I had no idea at the time of his Jewish background, but he might have been a yeshiva bucher in terms of his intensity.”

Clark rose rapidly in the military following a tour in Vietnam, where he won a Purple Heart for leading his men to safety after he had been shot.

In his early 30’s, Clark served a stint as a White House adviser in the Ford administration and, after a number of command positions, was responsible by 1994 for worldwide strategic military planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was promoted to NATO chief in 1997.

Even now, his energy level is so high that he’s active nonstop, says Jeanette Schnurmacher, a Jewish community official in Broward County, Fla., who has hosted Clark several times for speaking engagements.

“He didn’t want to rest,” she recalls of one visit. “He wanted to play golf, so my husband got a couple of friends together.”

After he returned to Little Rock as a private citizen in 2000, Clark started doing paid speaking engagements about his experiences as NATO commander. He also joined the Stephens Group, an investment outfit.

His 2001 lecture in Broward County was one of Clark’s first speeches, and Schnurmacher recommended him to other Jewish federations. Clark ran the circuit, talking of his Jewish background and peppering his talk with references to the Torah.

“Every federation would call back and say, ‘What a spectacular speaker,’ ” Schnurmacher says.

Jewish family members say Clark has great interest in his provenance and is always digging for more information about his ancestors — though the information hasn’t altered his spiritual orientation.

“He’s very warm, very family-conscious,” Salk says.

Clark invited all his Jewish cousins to the recent wedding of his son, in Little Rock. Another cousin, Barry Kanne, has researched Clark’s Jewish family tree for him.

The first time Kanne and Clark met, around 1990, “we talked about family,” Kanne told JTA.

Clark recently visited his father’s grave in Chicago. He also was close to his stepfather, Victor Clark.

“I was very proud when I learned the story of my father’s family,” Clark said. “I was enthralled. I was very, very happy about it. It was like a new world had opened in front of me.”

Each time he speaks to a Jewish audience, Clark mentions his father, Benjamin Kanne, a corporate lawyer in Chicago who once employed Richard Daley, the future mayor. Kanne attended a Reform synagogue and was a member of the Jewish Veterans of America.

“He had three loves other than his family,” Clark recently told the audience at Temple Emeth, in Boca Raton. “He loved politics, he loved pinochle and he loved horses. He never made any money.”

Clark’s talk of his Jewish background somehow turned into why he converted from Baptist to Catholic. At Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes scholar, Clark told the congregation, he met a Catholic priest who had been an officer in the Cold Stream guards, an elite British army unit.

“He fought in World War II, he really knew where things were,” Clark said, “and so I decided I would convert to Catholicism.”

The congregation greeted the revelation with stunned silence.

The moment was typical of Clark, who has the intellectual’s tendency to work thoroughly through the topic of discussion. Since he had started with his Jewish background, it seemed perfectly natural to explain his Catholicism.

Similarly, a nuanced answer at the launch of his campaign in September, about how he would have voted on the Iraq war, baffled many members of the media and almost killed Clark’s campaign before it started. Clark said he would not have joined other Democrats in voting on the particular bill that sanctioned the war, but that in theory he might have supported a war bill as a means of pressuring Saddam.

Clark’s refusal to reduce his message to aphorisms is precisely what appeals to many supporters.

“He was a breath of fresh air,” Esther Messinger, a local retiree, said after the event in Boca Raton. “He combines the intellectual background with military experience.”

Barbara Seaman, a feminist writer who has raised funds for Clark in New York, says he reminded her of Adlai Stevenson, the Democrat who lost twice to President Eisenhower.

“All the Jewish women loved Adlai — he was charming, witty and sophisticated,” Seaman says.

Clark clearly relishes his reputation as a warrior-intellectual even though, he says, he was marked for hostile treatment by others in the military the moment he won his Rhodes scholarship out of West Point, in 1968.

But even four-star generals have to take orders, and Clark’s tendency to leapfrog the command structure sometimes got him into serious trouble.

Most notably, as NATO commander during the Kosovo crisis in the late 1990s, he allied himself with two civilians — U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the top U.S. envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke — in advocating for military intervention.

That relationship sidelined Clark’s direct superiors, including Defense Secretary William Cohen, who, despite a successful mission in Kosovo, engineered Clark’s firing in 1999.

Clark says the day he learned he was being fired was the worst in his life.

Clark acknowledges that he broke rank but says he had a higher duty as a soldier, since the Pentagon’s reluctance to act against Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic was immoral.

“When I watched Slobodan Milosevic beginning a program of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans again, I blew the whistle. I said we have to stop it, and we are going to stop it,” Clark said.

Clark, who this week testified against Milosevic at The Hague, said the question of whether to intervene in Kosovo reminded him of the U.S. failure to help Jews in Hitler’s Europe.

“It was a sense of injustice and a recognition that the United States had been wrong in not having the courage to confront Hitler,” he said. “We’d been wrong in turning our backs on European Jews who needed protection in this country. We turned away a ship — we sent it away. Many of those people ended up dead. It was absolutely morally wrong.”

Clark says he admires other soldiers who break out of “following-orders” mode and has singled out Israelis for mention.

He has expressed support for Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s army chief of staff, who recently angered Israel’s prime minister by saying that the Jewish state is hindering peace through its tough military measures, and four former Israeli spy bosses who have said Israel needs to work harder to make peace.

“They’ve concluded that military measures alone will not provide security for Israel,” Clark told the Council on Foreign Relations last month. “I agree.”

Like the other Democratic candidates, Clark says Bush failed Israel when he reduced the U.S. role in the Middle East peace process during the first year and a half of his presidency.

Based on his experience in Yugoslavia, Clark envisions a multilateral approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that increased involvement by neighboring Arab states would give them a stake in making the peace process a success. He also sees NATO troops policing the peace much further down the line.

Clark says he understands Israeli fears about increased European and Russian involvement and would make sure the United States maintains its leading role.

“The United States has to be in the lead. It’s the United States’ leadership that’s going to bring peace in the Middle East,” Clark said. “That’s why I fault this administration.”

It’s a message that could resonate among Jews who appreciate Bush’s solidarity with Israel, some Jewish Democrats say.

“I appreciate that George W. Bush has supported Israel, but going it alone has weakened Israel,” said Ron Klein, the minority leader in Florida’s state Senate. “What support for Bush you’ve seen in the American Jewish community is going to erode.”

Clark’s main Israel message is that the Jewish state has a right to defend itself, and he blames the Palestinians for initiating the violence of the past three years.

“The Israeli government has a duty to defend its people from the constant onslaught of bombers who attack innocent civilians on buses, in restaurants and on their way home from prayer,” he wrote in the Forward newspaper last month. “As a retired general, I firmly believe that this is the least that any society expects of its leadership.”

His view on the security barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank is that the reason behind its construction — the need to stop terrorists from entering Israeli cities — outweighs concerns that its route prejudges the borders of a future Palestinian state.

“The action of building a fence can actually promote negotiations by creating” a “sense of urgency and a recognition among the Arab states that Israel will survive,” Clark told JTA. “I would do it through a negotiated settlement, but if that’s not possible, Israel’s going to survive one way or another.”

For the same reason, Clark has supported pre-emptive strikes against terrorist leaders.

Still, he balks at reports that the United States has adopted some Israeli tactics in dealing with Iraqi insurgents, including blockading towns and demolishing homes.

“Blowing up houses and things, I think it’s a mistake for the United States,” he said, pointing out that the circumstances in Israel are different.

“For the United States to go into Iraq and do that is a recipe for trouble down the line,” he said. “To take away someone’s home, it’s a permanent blot on your ability to build a relationship.”

Recommended from JTA