Gen. Wesley Clark's 'Integrity and Character Issues'

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, September 26, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: One question nobody seems to be asking the Gen. Wesley Clark (search) is why was he forced to retire from his position as supreme allied commander of NATO?

Clark's former superior Gen. Hugh Shelton (search) shocked an audience in California a day or two ago when he said Clark was fired because of integrity and character issues.

Chris Suellentrop (search) is the deputy Washington bureau chief for Chris, that is today's big question. What did Wesley Clark do to get himself fired?

CHRIS SUELLENTROP, DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, SLATE.COM: Wesley Clark was never popular in the Pentagon. He was an advocate for putting boots on the ground in Kosovo, ground troops in Kosovo, which wasn't a popular position in the Pentagon. And many people in the Pentagon thought erroneously that he was close to President Clinton, he was thought to be an operator, he was thought to be slick. And they kicked him out.

GIBSON: But wait. You've been covering this campaign. Everybody's asking him about the various positions he's taken. He was for the [Iraq] war, appeared to be just months ago, and now he's against the war. He used to be a Republican, now he's a Democrat. But these two words are pretty important — integrity and character. And they're coming from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs who fired him. When you're a four-star general and the supreme allied commander of someplace like NATO, and you get fired over integrity and character issues, how come nobody's asking about that?

SUELLENTROP: It's a devastating quote. I mean, Gen. Barry McCaffrey (search) came out and defended Clark, but you don't often see a career military officer take after another career military officer like that.

GIBSON: Using those kind of words.


GIBSON: Obviously, Shelton is the guy who had to fire him. He had to have a good reason, and I'm sure he believes his reason. But he could have said, “We didn't get along,” or “We had creative differences,” if it were Hollywood… But integrity? Does that mean the guy lies? Does he tell the truth to his bosses?

SUELLENTROP: Basically, Shelton should say more of what he means by that. What character issues? What integrity issues?

GIBSON: Why do you think it is that none of the other nine candidates in the debate [among the Democratic presidential candidates] didn't turn around and say, “Gen. Clark, what integrity issues? What character issues? Why were you fired?” No one said a word about this. Is somebody covering something up or are they just ...

SUELLENTROP: I don't think they're covering it up. I think they're just ignoring it. For whatever reason, they think Clark isn't a risk. [Howard] Dean is the enemy. Dean is the guy who's leading in Iowa, leading in New Hampshire. Clark, despite his position in the national polls, is third place in New Hampshire, 11 percent, which is big, but you want to knock out the guy in first, not third.

GIBSON: Is there a khaki wall that is going to close around Clark, and we are not going to find out what it was that Hugh Shelton and evidently more people at that level felt about him?

SUELLENTROP: This is a big issue for Clark, and one of the big questions is what are members of the military going to say? What were the people that worked with him going to say? This was one of the primary rationales for his campaign — what other members of the military say about him. If more comments like this come out, it's a serious problem for him.

GIBSON: Look back. When Clark announced, a big red, white, and blue bunting announcement, did we see any generals standing beside him in uniform?

SUELLENTROP: No, absolutely not. Not like you see a John Kerry, or John McCain or Bob Dole.

GIBSON: So, why not? Why aren't candidates saying, “Gen. Clark, where are your generals? Where are the guys who stood by you in the trenches? Did they not stand by you in the trenches?”

SUELLENTROP: You'd have to ask Clark's campaign why they didn't have generals at his event or if they asked generals to show up. I don't know.

GIBSON: Sure. But you're covering these candidates. How come these candidates aren't raising it?

SUELLENTROP: … Wesley Clark might as well not have been [at the debate]. The debate was no different for Gen/ Clark's presence other than the fact that Gen. Clark got to say his peace. It was the same debate you would have had two weeks ago — everyone attacked Howard Dean. There is a sense the candidates had that if you attack a candidate, you elevate them, you make them more serious. I think there's a hope that Clark's support will dissipate, that he will continue to make gaffes like he did about the Iraq war, that statements like this will harm him. And when you go negative on another candidate, you don't just harm the candidate, you also harm yourself.

GIBSON: Could it be because these issues, the words "integrity and character" are so large that if they fried Clark now, they may not have somebody that they want to run with? The Democrats cannot attack this guy or find out what these issues were because it's too bad, they may need him?

SUELLENTROP: What a campaign always hopes is that either a candidate destroys himself or the media destroys him. You never want to have to destroy someone because, like I said, if you go negative on someone, voters don't like it that you are going negative. In a 10-person race, it's not a zero-sum game.

GIBSON: Do you think Gen. Shelton made a mistake using these words and saying these things in California the day before yesterday?

SUELLENTROP: You'd have to ask him if he'd made a mistake. I think he is gong to be asked to explain those — if he didn't want to be in the news, he made a mistake because he's going to be asked to explain those comments.

GIBSON: Chris Suellentrop will be one of those asking, as soon as he gets out of the studio. Chris, as always, thank you very much.


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