It was only in his 20s that Wesley Clark, the retired general and Iraq war critic, discovered his Jewish ancestry. But the newest entry in the Democratic presidential race has wasted no time in bringing his fledgling campaign to Jewish precincts — and by this week he seemed poised to inherit some Jewish voters uncomfortable with the war but uneasy about some positions of another anti-war contender, former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
On September 18, the day after his announcement in Little Rock, Ark., Clark held a late-afternoon meeting with South Florida Democrats at the Deli Den, a “kosher-style” restaurant in Hollywood, Fla., a heavily Jewish city in Broward County.
“One of his first stops was not only Florida — the only swing mega-state — but where does he pick to go? Broward, my county,” crowed Mitch Ceasar, the Broward Democratic chairman, who attended the meeting at the restaurant, his father’s favorite hangout.
The move looked like smart politics — and not only because of Florida’s electoral heft. In order to be a viable candidate, Clark will have to build up his campaign coffers with lightning speed, and Florida, with its many wealthy Jewish retirees who play the political field, is a good place to do that.
Ceasar, who is Jewish, said Clark has the potential to reap a windfall among Broward’s rich donor base despite the attention the other Democratic candidates are paying to the region. “The main players here are [Connecticut Senator Joseph] Lieberman, [Florida Senator Bob] Graham and, to some extent, Dean,” he said, but there is ample room for Clark in part because “it’s not like any major fundraisers [here] are committed to Dean.”
Clark was generating buzz in New York’s Jewish donor circles after a hurriedly arranged fundraiser Monday night in Manhattan. “I think Clark might just take the wind out of the sail of Dean’s balloon,” said lawyer Stuart Shorenstein, whose wife went to check out the general. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of people gravitating over.”
The idea that Clark would gain among Jewish voters at the expense of Dean was also promoted by Rep. Steve Israel, a New York congressman who was one of the first in the House to endorse Clark. “Oh yeah,” is how Israel responded when asked whether Dean had hurt himself with recent remarks advocating a neutralist posture toward Arab-Israeli negotiations. Clark, meanwhile, garnered rave reviews when he spoke in Long Island a couple of weeks ago to the Long Island Foreign Affairs Forum, a group of 100 business leaders, Israel said.
“For Jewish voters who are concerned about terrorism and who want a president with a constructive and thoughtful strategy for dealing with terrorism, Wesley Clark is extremely appealing,” Israel said. “No other candidate has a lock on New York’s Jewish voters. I think General Clark has that opportunity.”
Israel, who voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, said he was unconcerned with conflicting statements Clark has made on the campaign trail about whether he would have voted for the resolution. Commentators have seized on the flip-flops as evidence that Clark was stumbling out of the gate, but Israel said arguments over the resolution were less about “substance” than about “timing.”
Israel said that reports of a 50-member groundswell of congressional support for Clark sounded inaccurate. “There’s no hard count,” he said, but “several of us will be talking to other colleagues” whom he expects to sign on soon.
In a busy week of appearances, Clark gave a speech about what he termed the “new American patriotism” and attended a raft of fundraisers. The telegenic general, a wiry man with a soft Southern accent and an intense gaze, vaulted to the front of the Democratic pack in some polls and was even seen to beat President Bush in one survey match-up. But many observers saw that less as evidence of Clark’s strength than of the idea that, in the words of political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, “Democratic voters are looking for somebody — anybody” exciting in a lackluster presidential field.
Clark has already laid some of the campaign’s financial groundwork among Jewish donors. Among major contributors to Democrats who are mentioned as climbing aboard the Clark bandwagon are New York venture capitalist Alan Patricof, at whose office Clark met with some big money wheels in November; New York psychologist Gail Furman, who held a fundraiser for Clark this week; Steven Spielberg, who held a luncheon for Clark this month; Slim-Fast mogul S. Daniel Abraham, who underwrote a conference on American leadership that Clark organized at Georgetown University in the spring, and Hollywood worthies Richard Donner, Peter Morton and Jordan Kerner, who held events for Clark recently.
The general’s Hollywood incursion went especially well, according to some West Coasters.
“He came out here and did two very successful events,” said Los Angeles Democratic strategist Donna Bojarsky. “He impressed a lot of people.”
What the general is selling, as he has in foreign-policy speeches around the country, is a charismatic, forceful, yet oddly gentle vision of American leadership in a dangerous world.
A hint of Clark’s thinking on the Middle East is contained in a series of reports on the region by the International Crisis Group, a caucus of foreign-policy luminaries on whose board Clark sits. The reports, which can be viewed at the group’s Web site (www.intl-crisis-group.org), argue for a comprehensive, rather than incremental, strategy to end the Arab-Israeli conflict that would involve “not only the Israeli-Palestinian track… but the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon tracks as well.”
The idea is that all regional actors should be involved in the peacemaking accords with Clark’s emphasis on multilateralism. His major criticism of the Iraq war — derived from his experience as the former supreme allied commander of NATO during the Kosovo war, when Slobodan Milosevic was driven from power — is not that it was wrong to oust Saddam Hussein, but that it was wrong to do so without substantial international backing, especially from NATO’s largest powers.
Clark obviously could advise other candidates on foreign policy. His own advisers on the topic, however, according to associates, include top Clinton administration figures such as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former national security adviser Sandy Berger, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and former ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, his friend from the days of the Kosovo war and the figure who emerges as the most likely pick for secretary of state in any Democratic administration.
Clark, 58, was born in Chicago as Wesley Kanne. His father was a Jewish lawyer and Democratic politico whose own father, Jacob Nemerovsky, had been a refugee from Minsk. Clark’s father died when he was 4; his Southern-born mother returned with her child to her native Arkansas, where she remarried and raised Clark as a Baptist. She hid his Jewish background from him, seeking to spare him from the prejudice she saw around her, but Clark — who converted to Catholicism as an adult — learned of his large Jewish family and was reunited with them when he was in his 20s.
Clark’s Jewish roots have influenced his thinking about domestic and world affairs, he told the Forward in an interview in January. However, he refuted late 1990s press reports suggesting that his family’s Jewish refugee background influenced his fight for the Kosovars. “I don’t know if it had any direct impact,” he said. “I was trying to do my duty at the time. Everybody has a responsibility to do his duty.”
But he credited his Jewish background with raising his consciousness to the civil rights movement: a useful biographical well upon which to draw when appealing to African-American voters. Referring to his childhood memories of the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957, he said, “I saw first-hand the racial prejudice, the civil disobedience, the intolerance,” he told the Forward. As an adult, he added, “I’ve often gone back to that experience. It’s something I’ve related to.” He also cited his Jewish background in relation to his feeling “sick” that in 1994 the “U.S. didn’t encourage the U.N. to stop the genocide” in Rwanda: “When you can make a difference, you should.”