Two months ago Wednesday, retired Gen. Wesley Clark announced he was joining the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination. After eight weeks of nonstop campaigning, Clark is preparing for what some consider a rite of passage for those seeking public office: late-night television. Clark is set to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on Thursday.
"We've been talking to comedy writers and we regard this as an important experience," said Clark's communications director, Matt Bennett, adding that a variety show is a viable campaign stop. "Letterman is very influential," Bennett said.
It appears that Clark was testing the comedic waters Wednesday on the trail in New Hampshire. At a "Politics and Eggs" breakfast in Bedford, Clark's pun ("I hope I make good eggs") fell flat, but he scored a home run when he shared a witty observation about how seriously residents of New Hampshire take their politics. "People in this state would rather watch 'Meet the Press' than the New England Patriots on a Sunday afternoon," Clark joked.
In his "Conversations with Clark" events, the general often uses his quick wit to banter with the audience. When asked to describe a potential running mate to a group at the VFW post in Concord, he answered, "Could be a man or a woman. It's not important in that respect, but they have to be a leader. They've got to be experienced, they've got to be compassionate, they've got to have a big picture view of the world. They have to work with me and my administration."
When he was interrupted by a woman in the front row who volunteered herself for the position, Clark retorted, "You're good, but for me it's a little early too make that kind of determination, Brenda, as much as I think of you."
At Plymouth State University, a student asked Clark how the campaign plans to gain young voters' support. The retired military man showed off his pop culture knowledge. "I've been real worried about Outkast," he said of a popular hip-hop group. "It's not true, by the way. It's not true that they're breaking up. It's just Andre 3000 and Big Boy cut solo records, OK?" Clark grinned as he quoted the group's lyrics, "And I know how to shake it like a Polaroid picture."
Perhaps realizing humor often doesn't translate well between generations, the 58-year-old candidate amended his response to the sophomore's question. "But it's my belief that young people don't want me to act like I'm 25 years old. I'm just who I am."
While humor can win support, lighthearted responses can sometimes get politicians into trouble. At last night's Plymouth State event, for example, Clark was asked by a woman in the audience how he coped with stress. Clark began to describe an encounter near the end of the Kosovo war, when he ordered a British general to seize an airfield in Pristina after it was believed the Russians were taking it over. The British officer refused, reportedly saying, "I'm not going to start the Third World War for you."
How did the general cope with that stressful moment?
"It's the day I learned that stress comes in colors. There's blue stress, there's green stress … and when it's really, really bad, there's red stress. After about three hours of this, I realized I really needed to go to the restroom. And then I felt a whole lot better. Sometimes you just have to get up and walk around from your desk. And I guess even if it will be a desk in the Oval Office, sometimes you just have to get up and clear your head. And after that I settled down. I was able to think more clearly, and it worked. No punching walls, no taking off my shoe and hitting it on the table, no screaming and hollering. It's just a matter of really trying to organize your thoughts and work through the issues at hand."
The woman who asked the question didn't appreciate the "toilet humor," saying, "I didn't like his answer. I thought he was caught off guard."
But this was not the faux pas of the day. When Clark was running late to the Plymouth State event, actor David Keith, a Clark supporter, was asked to warm up the crowd. While the general's favorite theme is uniting the American people, pulling together Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike, Keith incorporated an anti-Republican joke in his repertoire. But, as it turned out, there were more than a handful of Republicans in the audience, which became clear when Keith asked the audience to raise their hands by party affiliation.
"You know how they just smile with their teeth like they're fixing to bite you? They don't smile with their eyes because they're worried maybe they haven't been unscrupulous enough, someone's going to get one up on them," Keith said. Sharon Borggaard, an Independent who regularly votes Republican, spoke out in response, "Would you like us to stay?"
Keith didn't hear her and Borggaard stayed through the event. But later she said of the incident, "It didn't do anything to pull me in. In fact, I was ready to leave, but I was more curious to hear what the general had to say."
Fortunately for Clark, Borggaard enjoyed what she heard after the joke. "He was great, he was well spoken, and he was fair," she said. "I'm undecided, but if the election were held today, I'd vote for him."
But don't look for Clark to blow Letterman's late-night audience away on Thursday. "We probably won't do anything too dramatic," said Bennett.
By Bonney Kapp
By Bonney Kapp