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Nov 27, 2003

No “There” There: The Psychology of Wesley Clark

The New York Times is running a series of profiles on the Democratic presidential candidates. The article they ran this week was titled: “General Clark on the Hustings: Complexity and Contradiction.”

Newspaper writers are like psychologists. They are trained to observe situations, fit the data together, and draw conclusions. In this case, however, the only piece of sense the reporter could make about the General was that he didn’t make much sense.

In observing how people present themselves in everyday life, we are socialized to ignore or overlook loose ends. For this reason, people make the assumption that Clark must be more put together than he appears. The “data,” however, suggests otherwise. The obvious facts about Clark are that he votes all over the ideological spectrum; keeps shifting his religious affiliation; has no political ideology; and repeatedly contradicts himself on almost every issue.

Other things stand out too. He has frustrated and alienated almost everyone he has ever worked for; he has no emotional reaction to being in Vietnam; and he hardly ever blinks or directs his glance to the side.

Before I became a psychotherapist, I used to think “the self” was strictly a symbolic concept. I don’t think that anymore. I have come to understand how removed someone can be from his own experience (be it emotional, sensory or intellectual).

Sometimes, a person who lacks identity “decides” what to feel or think by calibrating himself to those around him. This is easy to see in passive or dependent people. Other times, though, people can derive direction through the creation of “systems in their head.” You see this is in rigid personalities, such as General Clark.

Such people will develop rules or matrices that kick in, like default programs, in situations that call for more individuality. When he was in Vietnam, for example, Clark switched from the Baptist religion to Roman Catholicism not for any philosophical or spiritual reason, but because he liked the greater “structure and rigor.” When requested to describe himself in 10 words, Clark asked for help answering the question. “You’ve got to give me a series of axes,” he replied. “Lay it out on a series of dimensions.”

In Clark’s case, the military was probably a good place to be. For a long time, his unyielding focus and his ability to calculate solutions within fixed parameters served him well. The only problem was, Clark’s effectiveness eventually led to his elevation into the higher ranks, where he was required to think more for himself and take into consideration the unpredictable (the behavior of Slobodan Milosevic, for example). When that happened, Clark’s performance became an unmitigated disaster.

The main problem with Clark is that he is not capable of original thinking. In other words, he is virtually unable to take previous knowledge and experience, apply it to new circumstances and then synthesize it effectively. Instead, Clark work backwards, taking the circumstances in front of him and force-fitting it, usually in the most concrete and automatic way, to something he already knows.

This is why, when he was ambushed in Vietnam and felt stings in his legs, he thought about hornets. While almost anyone else would have realize they had been shot, Clark’s mental process was to recollected what they told him in Ranger school, which was: In Vietnam, if you hear a buzzing noise and feel a sting, it’s most likely a hornet. This psychology eventually led to Clark’s removal from the Army. After taking over command of NATO’s military wing, his agenda was to defend Kosovo from the Serbian threat. To the horror of the Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs, however, Clark’s strategy was to enact what had worked in Bosnia —although the situation bore few political or militarily parallels.

Although he is continually misjudging situations or abandoning one belief for the opposite, Clark continues to maintain credibility. Why? Because he appears to knows better. Guided by rules in every situation, he maintains an unshakable belief in everything he says and does. And people mistake this for confidence. Up to now, people have taken General Clark’s nonsensical honesty as humor, and his strong-mindedness for assertiveness (although most of his military peers attribute it to arrogance or blind ambition). Just listen to him speak, though. When he says he became a Democrat because Karl Rove wouldn’t return his phone calls, there’s no sign he’s joking.

With the right handlers, its possible this phase of the Presidential race could shape up like Clark’s earlier run in the military. If someone can lay out the game for him and keep him “on script,” he might look pretty good for awhile. Afterall, the same strategy hasn’t hurt George Bush any. On the other hand, George Bush might not think very deeply or deal well with complexity, but he does have a philosophy (as Reagan demonstrated, simpler can be better) and his social and political skills are highly refined.

The fatal problem for Clark’s campaign is probably his inability to genuinely make a connection with others. When pressed by the Times reporter to try and really describe himself, the General explained that he had a hard time listening to people. “Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t,” he said. Then, descending into that algorithmic way of thinking, he explained: “…when time is short and people start down a path that you’ve been briefed on before, sometimes you say, ‘Wait, I understand what you’re going to say.”

One could spend a lot more time laying out the psychology of Wesley Clark, and it would probably be just as hard to believe. Like the character, Chauncey Gardner, in the story Being There, it’s difficult to look at someone with Clark’s stature and expect less than meets the eye. On the other hand, it’s only logical to take Clark at his own word. And what he’s saying is: Almost every encounter is a repetitive trip down a short path leading to someplace he’s already been.


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