MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, who has repeatedly decried the Bush administration for discouraging dissent, said yesterday he would support a constitutional amendment that outlawed desecration of the American flag.
Clark offered his view in response to a voter's question at an American Legion post in Manchester, on a day when he campaigned at several veterans-related events. It was the first time Clark had voiced a public opinion on the proposed amendment, and it was news to some of his aides -- who quickly said the position was an emotional response.
"The flag is something that is very deep and personal to him, as he has led men into battle and combat under the flag," said Chris Lehane, a Clark communications strategist.
But at speeches and town hall meetings throughout his campaign, Clark also has praised dissent as a patriotic act. "Democracy demands discussion, disagreement, and dissent," Clark said in an Oct. 22 speech in Manchester. "There is nothing more American -- nothing more patriotic -- than speaking out in defense of freedom, questioning authority, and holding your leaders accountable."
Matt Bennett, Clark's communications director, said Clark saw flag-burning as a "very, very, very particularized form of dissent that he simply can't abide. I guess he is carving out a little bit, but not very much. For the most part he is a very strong proponent of civil liberties."
To some veterans, Clark's support of the flag amendment was welcome news. Ernie Jones, 53, of Manchester, an Army veteran who heard Clark speak yesterday, said the position sealed his decision to support Clark over Senator John F. Kerry, another veteran.
Kerry, through a spokeswoman, said he believes the flag amendment violates free speech principles.
"If I saw someone burning the flag, I'd punch them in the mouth because I love that flag," Kerry said. "But the Constitutiton I fought for preserves the right of free expression."
Clark's campaign has taken pains this week to emphasize his three decades of army experience, in a primary state where veterans make up a sizable portion of the voting population. The campaign has also sought to downplay critical comments about Clark from several high-profile retired generals, including retired Army General H. Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Clark led the war in Kosovo.
Shortly before Clark entered the race, Shelton questioned Clark's integrity in a speech, but has steadfastedly refused to elaborate.
Last weekend, Chris Hernandez, an Army veteran who led Clark's military security detail in Europe, gave Clark high praise as a leader and attributed the generals' remarks to jealousy.
And yesterday, Clark's aides said they had found another motive for Shelton's criticism: He serves an adviser to North Carolina Senator John Edwards, one of Clark's primary rivals.
The Clark campaign said it was shown an e-mail sent by the Edwards campaign to its supporters noting that Shelton is scheduled to speak next Monday at a meeting of Edwards's foreign policy advisory committee. Bennett sent Edwards a letter asking the senator to tell Shelton to stop criticizing Clark.
"This conclusively proves that Hugh Shelton had an agenda when he attacked Wes Clark," Bennett said in an interview. "General Shelton's comments are absolutely outrageous and Senator Edwards should not be associated with them, if he truly believes what he says about not attacking one another in a primary."
Edwards shot back a letter to Clark, saying Shelton, a former North Carolinian, "has been a friend and adviser for many years. I will continue to seek his advice. When I talk to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it's about the safety and security of our men and women in uniform, not about politics."