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Military record provides fodder for supporters, and critics

In the minds of his supporters, retired Army General Wesley K. Clark is a white knight, a walking resume, a welcome addition to the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the minds of most Americans, he's a mystery.

The man who will officially enter the race today from his hometown of Little Rock, Ark., is known mostly for his role as supreme allied commander of NATO forces during the Kosovo conflict, and his visibility as a TV military analyst and a Bush administration critic before, during, and after the war in Iraq.

Beyond that, Clark has spent much of the last year being coy -- about when he would announce, whether he would announce, and, for months, whether he was even a Democrat.

To organizers of the Internet-based movement to draft Clark into the race, that didn't matter much. They have culled his many media interviews to compile a list of liberal-to-moderate political positions: he supports affirmative action and abortion rights, and says he disapproved of the Bush administration's tax cuts. But above all, they have touted Clark's military record, from his first-in-his-class finish at West Point in 1966 to his tour as an infantryman and unit commander in Vietnam, to his rise to the helm of NATO from July 1997 to April 2000.

Clark's opponents may focus on that NATO tenure as well -- particularly his exit from the Pentagon, when he received orders to leave his term four months early to make way for a replacement favored by the Pentagon brass. The order followed months of tension between Clark and senior officials at the Pentagon, some of whom bristled at what they considered his abrasive approach. "He did a very good job overall in Kosovo -- he was determined to prevail at a time when much of the rest of the country was ambivalent," said Mike O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

But while this is Clark's first foray into electoral politics, he may not be viewed as a complete outsider, O'Hanlon said.

"He's been seen as somewhat of a self-promoter and an iconoclast or lone ranger in a field where loyalty is valued above all else," O'Hanlon said. "I think he always elicited some suspicion because of his ambition."

Clark was born on Dec. 23, 1944, in Chicago, the son of Benjamin Kanne, a Russian-Jewish lawyer who died when Clark was 5. Clark's mother, Veneta, then moved back to her native Arkansas, and later married Vincent Clark, a former banker. Wesley Clark was raised a Southern Baptist, and later converted to Catholicism.

He grew up in the South at a tumultuous time; Clark was a high school student in Little Rock when integration efforts were dividing the city. At the height of the battles, he went to private school for two years. But he spent his junior and senior years at a public high school, where classmates remember him as a dedicated swimmer who helped win a state championship by swimming two laps of what was supposed to be a four-man relay.

After studying at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, Clark served in Vietnam as an infantryman in charge of a mechanized company. He served for 34 years in the Army, rising to director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commander of US military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean, and NATO supreme allied commander.

Clark had a sometimes rocky relationship with the Pentagon's top brass, according to former officers and civilians. During the war in Kosovo, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen famously told Joint Chiefs Chairman General Henry "Hugh" Shelton to tell the NATO commander, who had become a fixture on the airwaves, to get "his [expletive] face off the television."

Disagreements centered on President Clinton's public decision to rule out the use of ground forces in evicting Serbian forces from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. Clark, according to former officials who participated in war strategy meetings, believed that he was being hampered by politicians arbitrarily taking the threat of a ground assault off the table.

But most of all, tempers flared over Clark's insistence on listening to the 18 other NATO countries.

Still, Clark was widely viewed in the diplomatic community and by humanitarian aid organizations as extremely skilled in bringing along diverse interests to win a war with no allied casualties and to quickly fill the void afterward.

"Kosovo was unlike any war we ever fought," said Kenneth Bacon, who was assistant secretary of defense at the time. "He had to negotiate and it was a difficult position to be in and he did it well and it wasn't always easy."

Clark's career has been the stuff of books. He was among a handful of graduates in the West Point class of 1966 whom author Rick Atkinson featured in "The Long Gray Line." In "To End a War," former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke reported that when a vehicle carrying three members of his traveling party fell off a mountain road in the former Yugoslavia, Clark, a three-star general and Holbrooke's military adviser at the time, rappelled down the mountain to the wreckage site. Holbrooke's three aides died.

Retired Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, a longtime friend and colleague of Clark, said the strained relationship with some other officers was because Clark was in a different class than the average military leader. "For some reason in our military, and more so in the Army, there is a view you cannot be an intellectual and a warrior. In the military view, those terms are somehow inconsistent. That is not the case. I think he would be a great president."

David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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