Retired Gen. Wesley Clark spent Tuesday campaigning in the Granite State, visiting with veterans on a day dedicated to thanking and remembering those who have served their country. Although a veteran himself, today Clark was mostly politician. He started the day touring the Manchester VA Medical Center, and while he devoted talk time to veterans' affairs, his message reliably came back to the defining issue of the primary election: Iraq.
"I think the commander in chief has to both take care of the veterans and people who serve and I think it's his obligation to have a success strategy for what we're into," he told reporters after emerging from the closed-press tour.
Sticking with the day's theme, Clark headed to the Manchester American Legion Hall, where a group of 80 or so veterans and their families came to hear him speak. The first question put to Clark was one on the minds of many veterans: whether or not there should be a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the American flag. Clark signaled his strong support for a ban. "I'm very proud of it," he said, "and if we're going to emphasize a symbol of this country, that's my symbol and that's the symbol we should have across America. I'm absolutely in favor of anything that strengthens the American flag."
Although most in the room applauded Clark's view, it's been a point of contention with many in the Democratic Party, such as John Kerry, a veteran who has said he would not support such an amendment. Clark later explained his position to reporters, saying, "When you get into things that are close to people's hearts like the American flag, you kind of have to listen to what the American people have to say about it. And in this case, it's really something people hold dear."
While these Manchester veterans liked many of Clark's answers, they were first and foremost New Hampshire veterans. And in true New Hampshire fashion, they are slow to commit to a candidate, even if he's one of their own – like retired U.S. Air Force vet Marcel Talbot, who voted for President Bush, but is unhappy with the current situation in Iraq. "I liked his speech, I like Clark. I like what he believes in and what he wants to do," said Talbot. But, he added, "I'm still undecided on who I support."
Bill McManus, another Air Force veteran in attendance, admitted he liked Clark because of his military experience, calling him a "nice general." But that's not enough for a vote apparently. "I've got to go with Bush," he said.
Clark's Veterans Day continued despite a fall snowstorm on the way to Franklin, N.H. At the suggestion of one veteran in the crowd at the American Legion, the general stopped at New Hampshire State Veterans' Cemetery. For about five minutes in the thick of the snowstorm, Clark walked among the headstones alone, occasionally brushing off snow to read a name.
When Clark arrived at the final event of the evening at Franklin's VFW hall, the snow had let up in time for an outdoor candlelight ceremony. Clark and about 50 veterans with electric candles marched to the town's war memorial down the tiny main street courtesy of a police escort. The general stood at attention while a color guard saluted fallen veterans with rifles, followed by taps.
The marchers returned to the warm hall, to enjoy soup, sandwiches and cake. Not to mention beer. When he lost a challenge to the color guard involving military coins, Clark bought the group a round. And although Sam Adams may not be the campaign's official drink, Clark was overheard saying it was his beer of choice.
"Here's to the veterans of foreign wars, and all our veterans in America," was Clark's toast. The VFW cannot formerly endorse a candidate, but the toast made back to the general summed up the mood of the night: "General, here's to the best beer in America, and the best general in the world."
By Bonney Kapp