On the way to his fourth and final major policy speech, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and his entourage made use of an extra 15 minutes to pay a visit to the mother of a soldier who lost his life in Iraq this week. The press was not invited, but the general did mention the soldier, Darius Jennings, by name in his speech on Iraq Thursday, saying, "We are all grateful for his service and we should honor it today."
At first glance, the historically black South Carolina State University may not be an obvious venue to speak on Iraq policy. But the university's ROTC program has commissioned more minority officers than any other school in the country. According to campaign staffer Chris Lehane, the school not only has an excellent tradition of active military service, but playing host to a major speech "means a lot to the African American community."
The crowd of about 300 mostly African American students gave Clark a standing ovation upon his entrance and listened intently during his speech. While applause often seemed to originate from the same area of the auditorium, there were a few lines that got good responses, including when he mentioned feuds within the Bush administration. Clark made clear that his military background would come in handy, saying, "In a Clark administration, there won't be any question about whether the State Department drives policy, or the Pentagon drives policy, or the national security adviser drives policy. In a Clark administration, the president will drive the policy."
Clark also got a positive response when he spoke of visiting the injured troops, and he asked the president to do the same. "It will give you a real determination to have a strategy that's successful and not just ask for more money with a blank check," Clark said.
The hit of the day occurred when Clark offered a guarantee that if elected president, "I'll make sure we never get in a mess like this again."
But the biggest campaign news was made when Clark, referring to his days in Vietnam, got a little emotional, even choked up. The normally stoic former general's voice wavered when he spoke of missing his son's birth during the war. "It stings me still that I wasn't there when he was born. But I think of the young men my age in Vietnam, who had babies born at home, and they never made it back to see them. Their names are engraved in black granite on our national mall."
Some in the audience showed up to fulfill a class assignment but left Clark converts, including SCSU student Alisha McClean, who had never been to a political event before but now plans to vote for Clark in the primary. Kevin Walls, also an SCSU student, admitted he wanted to hear about more issues, including abortion and education. But after hearing the speech, he plans on supporting Clark, as well. "It was really emotional and was good to hear it from his shoes," said Walls. "You're not just looking in from the outside. It's different hearing it and seeing it and experiencing it for yourself."