The General's New Battle

updated 10/06/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2003 01:00AM

The general, a good talker, settles in to tell the story of the most exciting—and terrifying—day of his life. "I heard this bzing, bzing, bziiing!" he says. "I said to to the guy behind me, 'I've been shot! Get down!'"

It was Feb. 19, 1970, and Wesley Clark, then a captain in the U.S. Army, was pinned down by gunfire from a sniper's nest in the South Vietnamese jungle. Later, he says, he was lying in a Saigon military hospital when he received news that would have made your average soldier smile. "You've got a million-dollar wound," the doctor told his patient: no major bone or organ damage but, with four bullets to his hand, shoulder, leg and buttocks, enough to get sent home for good. Only Clark, he leads you to believe, was no average soldier. "I absolutely wanted them to give me my company back!" he says in a booming Arkansas twang.

Still spoiling for a fight three decades later, the former four-star general and CNN commentator ended weeks of speculation on Sept. 17 by announcing he is running for President. "We're firm in our intent, we're clear in our purposes...we're under way," Clark, 58, told a rally of hometown supporters in Little Rock, Ark. Joining an already crowded field of Democrats (who, with the exception of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, have yet to excite much voter enthusiasm; see page 82), Clark has generated instant buzz—and, according to a CNN poll, leads the Democratic pack and even President Bush—by pledging support for causes like abortion rights and strong opposition to Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. But critics say Clark, who only recently revealed his party affiliation, is a political novice who comes late to the race—with a small war chest. "There is an element of naïveté. He thinks if he has a good message the money will come," says one of Clark's oldest friends. "But Wes is ruthlessly competitive."

And has been since his youth. Born in Chicago in 1944, the only son of Benjamin Kanne, a lawyer, and wife Veneta, a bank secretary, he was 4 when his father died and his mother relocated to Little Rock, marrying banker Victor Clark. Raised a Southern Baptist, Clark learned at 23 through a distant cousin that his dad, a World War I veteran, had been the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. When he confronted his mother about why she had hidden his roots, "she just broke down," Clark says. "She said, 'You came down to Little Rock from Chicago and you'd lost your father, and you cried every day and you had a lot of fights. You just didn't need one more thing."

A star high school student, Clark was top of his class at West Point and (like another Arkansan, Bill Clinton) won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, taking along his new wife, Gertrude. The general happily spins a yarn about how they met: While at West Point he crashed a Navy party in New York City in 1964. Holding a cocktail a friend had suggested, he complained, "I asked for a manhattan, and this is what they gave me." "Gert said, 'That is a manhattan,'" Clark recalls. "She was probably thinking, 'Who is this guy? He doesn't even know what's in a drink!'" They wed in 1967. In 1969 Wesley II, now a screenwriter, was born.

After he was sent home from Saigon, Clark, who had converted to Catholicism, worked to rehabilitate his body—learning to walk and shake hands again—and pursued a military career, eventually taking over as Supreme Commander of NATO. In 1999 he led the successful campaign against Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo but was later relieved of his post after clashing with a Cabinet member. "He certainly made enemies at the Pentagon," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "He doesn't suffer fools gladly."

That independence could translate into trouble on the campaign trail. It already has at home: Clark toyed with running for President before winning the blessing of Gert, and she's his wife. If nothing else, this battle will make for a good story. "I feel the values I believed in when I was in the Armed Forces could really help this country," he says. "I'm talking about being all you can be."
•Thomas Fields-Meyer
•Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Steve Barnes in Little Rock

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