The general meets his Little Big Horn.

The general meets his Little Big Horn.

The general meets his Little Big Horn.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Feb. 11 2004 2:20 AM

Dismissed

The general meets his Little Big Horn.

MEMPHIS—This is the way a campaign ends. It clings to flailing hopes that Rupert Murdoch and the National Enquirer will bring down the front-runner. The candidate's wife complains to a TV reporter about the media's coverage of her husband. The Washington Post beat reporter says his newspaper is pulling him from the campaign, whether the candidate keeps going or not. During a three-hour ride from Nashville to Memphis, the campaign doesn't provide a campaign spokesman on the press bus. Phone calls and pages go unanswered. The press bus joke is whether the new Clark campaign song should be Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" ("down, down down ..."), Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" ("I thought of quittin', baby, but my heart just ain't gonna buy it"), or Beck's "Loser." Asked about comments from the candidate's son that major changes could be happening in the campaign after the Virginia and Tennessee primaries, Ian Alberg, a campaign staffer says, laughing, "Fire me please," so he can collect unemployment. And, with the possible exception of Wes Clark Jr., anytime anyone says anything interesting, it's off the record.

Exactly a week ago, everyone was certain that Wesley Clark was going to drop out of the presidential campaign after the Feb. 3 primaries until he pulled off a last-minute win in Oklahoma. On Tuesday morning, the Magic 8-Ball once again says that signs point to yes, but there's enough conflicting evidence to keep things muddled for much of the day. The campaign's primary-night party was going to be in Nashville, but it gets moved to Memphis—presumably because Memphis is three hours closer to Clark's home in Little Rock, where he would go after quitting the campaign. But Wes Clark Jr. tells reporters that his father will continue to Super Tuesday, no matter what, because his father told him so Monday night. At a polling place in Nashville, Clark sounds like Howard Dean, telling a voter that he's just waiting for voters to tire of John Kerry. "What's gonna happen is buyer's remorse," he says. "You know, the purpose of a campaign is to wring it out." The day before, to another voter, he said, "I've got a real shot in Wisconsin," and a lot of support in Hollywood.

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Still, no one really believes that Clark is staying in the race. At 1:55 p.m., Alberg says, "We're going to Wisconsin tomorrow," but within 20 minutes, reporters on the press bus are still calling sources to arrange interviews for post-mortem stories about the campaign. No one knows who to trust for news about the campaign. Does the staff know? Does Wes Jr. know? Does the general know?

At a stop at Noshville, a Nashville deli, candidate Clark doesn't bother with talking to voters, despite his staff's admonitions. Instead, he sits down and eats lunch for an hour. On the bus to Memphis, he takes a nap. "It's been a pretty nice day, all told," he says once we arrive in Memphis. "It's one of the more restful days I've had on the campaign."

At 5:30 p.m., we stop at a polling place in Memphis. "This is a hallelujah day," a voter calls out to the general. "We're gonna win this thing." Clark's staff urges him to talk to voters on their way in to the polls. "I don't want to be running, like I'm assaulting people," he objects. "You've got to be subtle about it." He tells a voter holding a piece of campaign literature, "My name's on that ballot. No, it isn't. That's a different ballot. Where's my sample ballot?" A staff member hands it to him. "That's my name, Wesley Clark. There's a lot of other people's names, but you don't pay attention to them." He's a four-star general and a major-party presidential candidate, handing out sample ballots. It should be an inspiring example of democracy in action. Instead, it's kind of sad.

Clark, however, is having a blast. "This is pretty much fun, isn't it?" he says. When his staff tells him its time to go, he complains. "Do we have to go? Why can't we just stay?" At another point, he just bursts out giggling. "It just kind of tickles me to see it," he tells the assembled reporters. What's so funny? "You're looking at me. The election's not abut me. It's about all these people who are voting." Since that answer doesn't make any sense, I can only speculate that Clark was struck by the the absurdity of the entire day. In the latest sign of the campaign's impending demise, staffers begin taking pictures of each other like it's the last day of summer camp.

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Back on the press bus, we hear that CNN has reported that Clark canceled a fund-raiser in Houston. "Nothing's been canceled," Alberg says. Traveling press secretary Jamal Simmons says, "There is no plan to exit anything tonight except Tennessee." Later, Alberg adds, "He's going to make a speech tonight. He's not going to concede tonight."

It sure sounds like a concession speech. Clark hits strange notes, such as "It just doesn't get any better than this." He congratulates Kerry and John Edwards, calling them "patriots." He doesn't talk about his future plans or where he's going next. Instead, he talks broadly and praises the Democratic Party. He may have lost this race, he says, but "we're not going to lose the battle for America's future." And the song they play at the end is the one that Clark lobbied to have as his campaign song, one that's disliked by his staff: Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Following his father on the way out of the room, Wes Jr's eyes are moist.

Shortly after the speech, 19 journalists huddle outside Clark's room—the Danny Thomas Suite—at the downtown Marriott to demand information on what the campaign is going to do next. The person staying across the hall walks out, and I think he's going to complain about the noise. Instead, it turns out that he's a fellow reporter. He says he overheard some people—he was watching them through his room's peephole—say that Clark had already notified his staff that he was dropping out. But he didn't recognize the speaker.

Just before 10 p.m., we're told that communications director Matt Bennett will come to the press filing center at 11:15 p.m. with an announcement. We pile in the elevator and go downstairs. At about 10:05, we're told that Bennett is coming now. Before he arrives, CNN flashes on the crawl: "AP: Wesley Clark abandons presidential campaign." Bennett shows up and confirms the report.

Not that we really needed confirmation. The candidate had said as much in the ballroom after his speech. He was shaking hands and thanking his supporters. I wish you had competed in the Iowa caucuses, says a supporter. "I wish I had, too," Clark replies. "Everything might have been different if I had done that." Then he walked out.