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General Wesley Clark


General's orders

Retired four-star general Wesley Clark thinks "don't ask, don't tell" needs to go and same-sex unions are here to stay. Can these pro-gay positions win him voters' support--and the Democratic presidential nomination?

By Jon Barrett

Former Advocate senior news editor Jon Barrett lives in New York City

It has been more than 10 years since a Democrat from Little Rock, Ark., first took on the military's ban on gay service members, winding up with a compromise that was quickly dubbed "don't ask, don't tell." Now another Democrat from Little Rock is tackling that compromise, saying it clearly doesn't work and must be dismantled. As president, Gen. Wesley Clark is prepared to fix what his former commander in chief, Bill Clinton, left broken.

In a testament to how much has changed in the decade since "don't ask, don't tell" was born, all nine of the Democratic presidential candidates who are currently elbowing their way across the country say the policy is discriminatory. But the 59-year-old Clark, a retired four-star gen- eral and former NATO commander, could be the only one with enough brass to make a difference. As Steve Rawls of the military watchdog group Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund explains, "Military leaders will have a lot of sway in convincing Congress to change the policy, and General Clark obviously has a lot of stature within the military community."

But first The General, as his aides all refer to him, must win the nomination. To accomplish that, the campaign has a lot of work to do, admits spokesman Matt Bennett during a break from campaigning in New Hampshire in order to stump in New York City. "We're running a 12-month campaign in nine months," Bennett says.

The Clark campaign was sprinting in New York City, squeezing in an interview with The Advocate during the hour-long commute between New Jersey's Teterboro Airport and a meeting on Wall Street. From there Clark took a rush-hour subway ride to a midtown Manhattan hotel--the same one where he met his wife, Gert, at a USO dance 39 years earlier. There he posed for photos to accompany this interview while two aides, sitting just off-camera, helped him rehearse his speech for that night's million-dollar fund-raiser, hosted by Meryl Streep and Anthony Edwards.

It's easy to get the sense that this is the pace with which the general is most accustomed.

Born in Chicago in 1944, he was the only child of Benjamin Kanne and his wife, Veneta. After his father died when Wesley was 4, he and his mother moved to Little Rock, where she married Victor Clark a few years later. Clark was 23 before he learned that his biological father had been Jewish. His mother didn't tell him of his heritage because, in part, she thought he already faced enough discrimination as a Yankee.

After Clark graduated first in his class at West Point and earned a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, he and Gert married in 1967. They raised son Wesley Clark Jr., born in 1969, in 31 homes as Clark pursued a career in the Army, which included volunteering for combat duty in Vietnam (where he was shot four times), leading the U.S. Southern Command in Panama in the mid '90s, and commanding NATO in Kosovo during the Balkans war. In December he testified at The Hague against former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic.

Clark admits that throughout his 34-year military service and his subsequent jobs as an investment banker and CNN commentator, he had little reason to delve into gay issues. In fact, he says he didn't know an openly gay person until the 1990s. Nevertheless, the campaign has provided him a crash course as the Massachusetts supreme court decision rocketed same-sex marriage into a top election topic--where the gays-in-the-military issue has been since candidate Bill Clinton raised it in 1992.

Clark spoke to The Advocate the day after Al Gore endorsed the candidacy of former Vermont governor Howard Dean--a move that Clark shrugs off as having more to do with Gore than with Dean--the same day two retired brigadier generals and one rear admiral came out of the closet in The New York Times [see page 26], a move Clark says deals significant blows to "don't ask, don't tell."

When it comes to gay issues, what makes you a better presidential candidate?
I've been in the armed forces. I've been at the very center of the firestorm. I know what it's like out there. And I've had people who have come up to see me about it since I've been out [of the service]--gay and lesbian people who need help.

What are they saying?
They tell me that they want it fixed, and I agree. The armed forces are the last institution in America that discriminates against people. It ought to be the first that doesn't. They ought to have the right to be who they are. They shouldn't have to conceal their identities. You know, there are different models [that allow for gay people to serve openly]--the British have a model--and there is no impact on combat readiness. It's a bogus issue.

Is there a model you prefer?
The model I prefer is to call on the leaders of the armed forces and say, "You have a problem, gentlemen. Please fix this." And let them come up with a new model. You've got to get the people in leadership to have a stake in the position that comes out.

Do those people have a stake in "don't ask, don't tell"?
They fought vigorously for it. But these aren't the same guys [in the Pentagon leadership today]. That was like four generations ago. Times are changing in the armed forces, just like they've changed in America.

Did you see the story in The New York Times today about the retired brigadier generals and rear admiral who came out of the closet?
No, but I heard about it. I didn't see it, though.

Let me show it to you.
[Reading] I don't think I knew them. This is a horrible thing that these guys had to live and conceal who they were, though.

What's your reaction?
I'm glad they came out. It will help move the policy forward. I think it's outrageous. If they had this policy in place during Vietnam, there would have been nobody in the Army. You wouldn't have had to fake a medical condition. You could have just said, "I'm gay." And what would they have said--"Prove it"? They put [the ban] in place when we became an all-volunteer force. I first heard about it in 1981. I remember a company commander coming to me and saying, "Sir, I've got this really great soldier who is introducing us to this guy and calling him his boyfriend. And we're going to have to throw him out of the Army." And I said, "Why do you have to throw him out? I don't understand." He said, "There is a new Army regulation that came out." We checked on it, and the guy had to leave the service.

Did you know people in the service who were gay before then?
No. There were always rumors--especially with the Women's Army Corps. But nobody ever knew. In the units I was in there were--as far as I knew-- no efforts to make people expose their sexuality. We never sent people to check gay bars and stuff like that. Soldiers had a right to their private lives as far as I was concerned. But there were some people who confessed. I interviewed one of them--a woman. She wanted out. And I had to say OK. There is no way around it. It's in law.

Can you imagine a situation where knowing someone's gay would affect unit cohesion?
No. One of these officers came up to me and said, "Sir, I heard what you said about gays in the military, and I have to tell you, I have some problems with it." And I said, "Pete, let me ask you a question. If your son or daughter were gay, would you still love them?" And he said, "Yes, sir." And I said, "Would you still want them to be treated with the same rights as everyone else? Or would you want them to be discriminated against?" Then he said, "OK, OK, I see where you're headed. I understand now." And it's really that simple.

During a debate in Boston you talked about how "don't ask, don't tell" works in some cases and how it doesn't work in other cases. What did you mean?
It works in some cases as it's designed to work. That is, it works if people can suppress their feelings and not be seen. Then there are other cases, where people just want to be with people like themselves. They just want to be able to tell who they are. As far as I know, we never had MPs go out to gay bars to find people. But there are other units, like the Air Force and Navy, where they have every gay bar staked out with special investigators. It's one of these gray areas where they say, "We didn't ask him, but he's here. He's giving all evidence of homosexual behavior, and he is associating with these people. And by Navy regulations or Air Force regulations or by instructions we have received, we have to ask him, 'Are you gay?' " And boom, that's the end of the policy. You can't do that to people. But you know, even where it works, it's wrong. That's what I want to say.

It's not OK to make people suppress their feelings?
No, I don't think so at all. I think the supreme court decision in Massachusetts was the right decision. I think that people who want to form a contractual relationship--whether they are same-sex or different-sex--should have exactly the same rights and responsibilities. So it's joint domicile, rights of survivorship. One of the clearest cases is hospital visitation. I mean, how dare they tell gay people who are hospitalized that their loved ones can't visit them? That's outrageous. But it happens all across America. So those things have to be absolutely fixed. And the sooner the better.

Speaking of marriage, I know your son was married recently. Let me ask you the same question you asked that officer: If your son had been born gay, would you want him to have the same rights that he enjoys today?
I would want him to have the right to have a stable relationship. But whether you call it marriage or not is up to the church or the synagogue or the mosque. And it's up to the state legislatures. I think marriage is a term of art. It's a term of usage. But the legal side of it is not: It's not negotiable.

But about 40% of U.S. marriages every year happen without any religious participation.
I support whatever the state says. If the state of Massachusetts says we're going to form a civil union but we're going to call it marriage, then as far as I'm concerned, that's marriage.

And what about the federal rights that come along with marriage?
They come.


Social Security?
Absolutely. Whether or not it's called marriage, those rights come.

So you support Massachusetts's calling it marriage?
Yeah, absolutely.

How do you think Congress would react to that?
Well, they'll love it. This is exactly what they're looking for. Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay and all those guys are looking for a real hand grenade to throw into the Democratic Party. It's an absurd issue, and it's one of the reasons I'm running. No one can accuse me of being soft on defense, and no one can accuse me of not knowing about what the armed forces are about. And when I say, "It's OK," then it's OK, period. But elections aren't always about common sense. And I think [Republicans] would love to frighten people.

So do you think marriage could be a successful wedge issue?
I think that it depends on who the candidate is. I think it will certainly be pushed as a wedge issue by the Republican Party.

More so if Howard Dean were the candidate?
You'll have to draw your own conclusions on that. If Massachusetts says that a civil union between two adults of the same sex is a marriage and that it should be called marriage, then that will promote a ripple effect of acceptance or rejection across the United States. It will make this a much more potent political issue. And it will reverberate for two or three or four years, depending on factors in the political system and so forth.

I just haven't thought it through that way, though. For me, it's not about political calculation. It's about the way I think that we should handle this as a matter of public policy--with equal rights in law. And you have to allow people--without it becoming a national election wedge issue--to say, "You know, my son is in San Francisco and he has formed a civil union. We love him and we really like the man he's living with--he's a really good guy--and we want to call their relationship a marriage." And when the little old ladies say that in churches across America, then the ministers will say, "You know, you're supposed to love your neighbor as yourself and you shouldn't discriminate against people." Eventually society changes--just as it has in the past. We'll get to that point.

But in the past, when the country was struggling with whether or not to allow people of different races to marry each other, for example, there wasn't a question of calling it something other than marriage.
The way Colin Powell said it is that it's like the decision that President Truman made [to desegregate the military] and the decision that he was asked to make [to allow gay people to serve openly]. He said that there is something fundamentally different with sexual orientation. I'm not sure that's correct. I'll start with the legal rights. Let's let convention take its course as it works through.

What role did growing up in Little Rock, Ark., have in your support of civil rights?
I grew up in a very conservative household. My stepfather was a die-hard Republican. He was a banker. He couldn't stand FDR, whom he called "Roo-o-osevelt." So what I saw when I was young was that civil rights was something that was ripping the country apart and it started in Little Rock, Ark., which was the epicenter of the earthquake. And I didn't understand it.

Were you old enough to understand what was happening at Little Rock Central High School [when it was integrated under police guard in 1957]?
No, I was in the eighth grade. I didn't get it. All I got was that there were all these big and important Northerners, these Yankees who would come down and pick on us poor people from Arkansas.

When did you start to support the efforts of those Yankees?
After I got in high school and realized that people are people. But you know, people don't like to be forced to do things. If you could get them to choose to do things and make them think that it's their own idea, then they'd respond a lot better.

And at what point did you realize equal rights for gay people were a part of that struggle?
Not really until the 1990s. I guess the first connection I ever had was a friend of mine who said he was gay. Before that I had never known anyone who said they were gay. You just wouldn't have met them in the Army. That friend was a White House fellow with me. He had been married, and I knew his wife and his kids. One day I asked him how he was doing. He said, "I'm doing OK. I have something to tell you." That's when he told me.

What was your reaction?
My wife said she always knew. My reaction was "OK." You know, I'm sorry his marriage busted up. And he was really unhappy about it. And it was very difficult for him personally during this period. We talked about it afterwards. He said, "You know, I had to make a decision. I had to say who I was." But it was a painful, difficult process. I think it is more difficult for people my age than it is for people who are younger. Younger people are more aware of sexual orientation. It's more acceptable, I think, among young people to discover who you are sexually earlier and admit it to yourself. I think there are a lot of people in my generation who couldn't admit it, who struggled with it for years and years and years.

I was taken by the story of your mother not being able to talk with you about your father's heritage and the parallels that struck with people not being able to discuss their sexual orientation.
There are a lot of parallels, absolutely.

What was it like for you when you learned that your father was Jewish?
I was very proud. The story of immigration is a story of courage. The story of admitting your sexual identity is a story of courage. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be able to do that. I had known a lot of Jewish people in Arkansas growing up because there was a large Jewish community. They tended to be very prosperous and well-to-do and very well-educated. I always liked them. It was much later in life that I realized that I wouldn't really fit into that community because they were German Jews and my family were Russian Jews. Maybe my mother knew that, and it was a part of why she never told me. She just told me that she wanted to protect me.

I think I cried every day after my father died. It's a really traumatic thing. I had no idea. I saw a little boy the other day when we were at a preschool in Rochester. A woman told me that her husband had been over in Iraq, that he had been injured, and that she had a boy in the school. And when I went into the class this little boy grabbed my hand and wouldn't let go. He insisted I see his picture of his family. He dragged me across the room. When you go into one of those situations and there are 15 or 20 kids in the class, they're all pulling at you and saying, "Oh, look at my picture!" But this kid wouldn't let go. He fought the other kids off. I felt this tremendous need. He had a tremendous need for his father. And I asked myself if that was the way I was.

How old were you when you got a step-dad?
The first time I met him I might have been 8 years old. Maybe I was almost out of the second grade. I remember the first time he ever had a date with my mother. He brought her home and I was sleeping in her bed. When I woke up there was this hunting knife there. It was the most wonderful thing I could have ever dreamed of. It had a leather scabbard and a bone handle. I would hold that knife and doze off and wake up again. It was like Santa Claus had arrived. If you get a hunting knife, it shows that you had a real dad, you know?

Going back to "don't ask, don't tell" for a moment, did you counsel President Bill Clinton at all when he initially wanted to get rid of the ban?
No, I didn't. I was a two-star general, and all I knew about it was from the press. And I didn't have any access to President Clinton. I never had access to President Clinton.

Really? I've read that you're friendly with him.
Well, he's friendly with everybody. I was a two-star general when he was elected president. I was a division commander. To have gotten to President Clinton I would have had to go through five levels of command. I could have called up and said, "I'm Wes Clark, and I'm a friend of Bill's." But I wasn't. And it would have been totally out of character and improper. Because by law the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser of the president. By law: What that means is, except for other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they control the access of military advice to the president. He's free to ask and talk to other people, but they're not free to come to him. And especially not to jump the chain of command.

What was your impression of the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise?
I didn't pay any attention to it. It really wasn't an issue. I talked to some of the troops. They got all fired up. There was a lot of anti-Clinton sentiment in the armed forces--"draft dasher," "pot smoker," etc. It can become a very emotional issue. And it's important for the issue to move forward in the right way.

Is there any way for it to move forward other than for it to be gone?
Yeah. These guys who came out today, that helps a lot. That helps it move forward. If I'm commander in chief, I'll call [Pentagon officials] over and tell them to reexamine the policy. We'll have a dialogue. But if I'm not the commander in chief, eventually there will be 40 or 50 people who get together to say, "We're all gay, and we love the armed forces, and we want to serve, and we don't think the law is right. It's not fair for you to discriminate against us, according to the Supreme Court decision [Lawrence v. Texas]. We've got a right to a zone of privacy. This is our privacy." And they'll be fully within the law.

So do you think it could take a court to change this policy?
It could. But I think that it's better not to do it that way. Because you'll have the government trying to say it's about military law and not civil law. They'll say that there are special conditions in the military and that these men have to be in the same tank together, blah blah blah.

And if Pentagon officials came to you as commander in chief and said the policy is working?
They won't.

That wouldn't be acceptable?
We'll start with the evidence that it isn't working, and I'll say, "Go back and tell me what we're going to do about this."

Are there any gay people that come to mind who you would consider for any administration appointments?
I haven't considered anybody for an administration appointment. But I promise you this: My administration, when I'm elected, will look like America. It will be fully representative of the diversity that makes this a great nation.

How does the news about Al Gore's endorsement of the Dean campaign change your strategy?
It doesn't. The way you asked about it is exactly right. It's not news about the presidential race; it's just news about Gore. I think that it will create an impressionable momentum for Dean in the elite media. But it doesn't change the reality.

You got a pretty high-profile endorsement yourself from Madonna. She said that the two of you met at her Los Angeles home and discussed your policies. How do you think you won her over?
Gert and I really enjoyed meeting Madonna. We found her to be engaging, bright, and very concerned about the direction the country is headed. We had a great discussion about a variety of issues. She believes strongly that we must make a change from the policies that the Bush administration has implemented. She told me that she believes that my experience as a general and in the international arena are important in restoring relationships with our allies.

Do you have any other endorsements up your sleeve? There has been talk about the Clintons' interest in your campaign.
No, I don't think it's proper. I wouldn't want to win this nomination by endorsements. I want to win this nomination because people get to know me, because they like me, and because they think I'm the best man to lead this party in this election and to defeat George W. Bush. It's a very hard thing for a military guy to come into this party. This party is comprised of very different groups, and many of them have issues with the military. Environmentalists don't like the fact that the military pollutes. Gays and lesbians feel discriminated against by the armed forces. So you have to let people get to know you. We're still in the get-to-know-you phase. And I know it.

And once they get to know you, what role do you hope gay people will play in your campaign?
I would like them to be my strongest supporters. I'm the one person who can bring their issues forward, and I will.


2004 Campaign site for Wesley Clark
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