Joe Conason's Journal

Rush "a boil on my butt kept me out of Vietnam" Limbaugh tries to dirty Clark's uniform; but Col. David Hackworth salutes him.

By Salon Staff

Published September 26, 2003 12:50AM (EDT)

Limbaugh vs. Hackworth
Anticipating the debate debut of Gen. Wesley Clark, Rush Limbaugh tested a few of the Republican spin points against him in the Wall Street Journal today. The eminent historian and military buff strained to dress up his screed with a far-fetched historical analogy to the Civil War era -- while airily dismissing Clark's achievements in the Army and glossing over his battlefield bravery. Limbaugh never hesitates to denigrate Democrats like Clark who served in uniform, although his own chief martial qualification is the 1-Y Vietnam deferment he got due to a persistent boil on his backside.

Without reviewing the catalog of exaggerated complaints against Clark, here's the short answer to his analogy: If you want to compare Clark with Gen. George McClellan, then you have to think of George W. Bush as Abraham Lincoln.

Contrast Limbaugh's predictable attack with the reassessment of Clark offered by David Hackworth, the retired Army colonel and colorful commentator on military and political affairs. Hack, as he is known to fans, is not exactly a liberal or a dove. Nor is he unwilling, as a rule, to criticize the pretensions of the brass. But after interviewing Clark recently for Maxim magazine, Hackworth decided that his earlier judgment of the retired general was utterly wrong.

According to Hackworth, "Clark was so brilliant, he was whisked off to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and didn't get his boots into the Vietnam mud until well after his 1966 West Point class came close to achieving the academy record for the most Purple Hearts in any one war. When he finally got there, he took over a 1st Infantry Division rifle company and was badly wounded.

"Lt. Gen. James Hollingsworth, one of our Army's most distinguished war heroes, says: 'Clark took a burst of AK fire, but didn't stop fighting. He stayed on the field till his mission was accomplished and his boys were safe. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. And he earned 'em.'

"It took months for Clark to get back in shape. He had the perfect excuse, but he didn't quit the Army to scale the corporate peaks as so many of our best and brightest did back then. Instead, he took a demoralized company of short-timers at Fort Knox who were suffering from a Vietnam hangover and made them the best on post -- a major challenge in 1970 when our Army was teetering on the edge of anarchy. Then he stuck around to become one of the young Turks who forged the Green Machine into the magnificent sword that Norman Schwarzkopf swung so skillfully during Round One of the Gulf War."

Hackworth forthrightly confesses that his jibe at Clark as a "Perfumed Prince" was unfair and misguided. "I was wrong," he says. Then he just about endorses his fellow soldier:

"At the interview, Clark came along without the standard platoon of handlers and treated the little folks who poured the coffee and served the bacon and eggs with exactly the same respect and consideration he gave the biggies in the dining room like my colleague Larry King and Bob Tisch, the Regency Hotel's owner. An appealing common touch.

"But if he wins the election, don't expect an Andrew Jackson field-soldier type. Clark's an intellectual, and his military career is more like Ike's -- that of a staff guy and a brilliant high-level commander. Can he make tough decisions? Bet on it. Just like Ike did during his eight hard but prosperous years as president."

Clark skates and doesn't fall
Nobody won this evening's Democratic debate, and nobody lost, but a theme began to take shape: The ruinous Bush tax cuts must be repealed, in whole or in part, the deregulatory zeal of the Republicans must be reversed, and the federal government must seek to ensure the health and employment of its citizens. The tax cuts are increasingly disturbing to voters -- as are the enormous job losses under this administration -- and these debates, dull as they sometimes can be, are serving a useful purpose in message development for the ultimate nominee.

The evening's focus was on newcomer Wesley Clark, who acquitted himself well enough -- if not quite so impressively as one might expect from the man who topped his class at West Point. The interlocutors from NBC and the Wall Street Journal came after Clark a little, but he easily parried their questions about his Democratic credentials. His public works spending plan is plausible, and he answered knowledgeably about Social Security and the problems of the federal mortgage agencies. If he didn't outshine the others onstage, he made no trouble for himself in his first outing -- and nobody tried to make trouble for him.

As for the rest, John Kerry did better than usual, especially in his passionate answer on drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge. He may yet find his stride. Dick Gephardt engaged in a harsh little duel with his main Iowa rival Howard Dean, comparing the former Vermont governor with Newt Gingrich on the issue of Medicare. The egregious Joe Lieberman tried to identify himself with Bill Clinton, an unappealing maneuver from the politician who made his career by denouncing Clinton's immorality on the Senate floor.

I must say that I was at least momentarily impressed with Carol Mosely Braun, whose remarks on Social Security privatization were sharp, and with John Edwards, who bluntly pointed out that the Bush administration is shifting the tax burden from wealth to labor. I was less impressed with Dennis Kucinich after listening to his repeated refrain about he was "the only one" who favored this or that. And Sharpton was Sharpton, as always. I'm getting tired of his act. Whenever he tries for more than comic relief, he flops.
[5:30 p.m. PDT, Sept. 25, 2003]

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