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Boy from Little Rock chooses military path

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of leading candidates in the 2004 presidential race. First of two parts

Wesley K. Clark lay bleeding on the ground as the landscape around him echoed with the high-pitched ping-ping-ping of gunfire. It was Feb. 19, 1970, and the young Army captain had been on patrol near Saigon when he paused to peer down a trail that disappeared into the jungle.

In an instant, a hellish hail of fire from AK-47s exploded all around. Clark saw blood oozing from his body.

"They're in there!" Clark shouted to a couple of soldiers at his side.

"Get down, sir!" responded one of the soldiers, sniper Michael McClintic, who vividly recalls the moment. Pushing Clark to the ground -- and probably saving his life -- the Army sniper sprayed the jungle with covering fire. Clark said he called for backup and ordered nearby soldiers to set up a base of responding machine gun fire.

The 25-year-old Clark had waited years for a chance to engage the enemy, and now he was out of the fight from nearly the start.

The Viet Cong ambush that nearly took his life that day would be the only significant combat Clark would experience over the course of an Army career spanning 34 years. But the episode set a course for a military life that both detractors and supporters describe as charmed from the start. First in his class at West Point, Clark carried the hopes of many high-ranking champions into the battlefield with him.

"How bad are you shot?" Clark's commanding officer, David C. Martin, asked when he reached Clark on the radio.

"I don't think I'm shot too bad," Clark replied, according to Martin's recollection. Clark apparently did not realize the severity of four wounds to his shoulder, hand, and leg. Later Clark would recall: "I couldn't hold anything in my right hand, and I couldn't use my foot. I stumbled."

Martin raced to a helicopter and flew to Clark's location.

An Army typist recorded the moment, according to a document found in the National Archives: "Urgent . . . Gd [ground] contact . . . area unsecure -- need jungle penetrator. . . . Lighthorse 21 en route."

Within minutes, a second helicopter was overhead, dangling its "penetrator" lifeline into the jungle. Soldiers attached Clark to the dangling cord, and he was "extracted" and flown to a hospital 8 miles away.

McClintic, who was also hit by enemy fire during the ambush, received a Bronze Star with valor for heroic achievement in action. Clark was awarded the more prestigious Silver Star, reserved for "gallantry in action of marked distinction." While Martin originally wrote up Clark for a Bronze star with valor, a now deceased superior asked him to elevate the medal, and Martin said he agreed. Officers were often given higher medals than enlisted men in Vietnam, and a Silver Star added weight to Clark's military resume. The decision "suits me fine," said Martin, especially because Clark was "leading his people" and on foot patrol and retained control of the company.

For 33 years, Clark did not know the name of the person "who may very well have saved my life" until the Globe located McClintic in Michigan. Of his own action, Clark said, "I'm not going to say I was a hero. I think a hero is somebody who saves somebody else's life through risking his own life. What I did is I did my duty. My duty was to command the company. I got shot and I maintained command and gave the orders and directions." As for McClintic, Clark said the soldier "should have gotten something more . . . these awards were never fair."

During more than three decades in the Army, Clark rose to the rank of four-star general and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He was mostly in a classroom, or a war room, or serving as a commander at posts ranging from Colorado to Texas to Germany. He was not on the battlefield during the first Gulf War, although he trained troops for that conflict.

Clark draws passion from both supporters and detractors in the military. He is either the most brilliant man they have ever known, or the most arrogant, or both.

He is "the greatest thing since sex, or you detest him," in the colorful observance of Rick Brown, an admirer and superior officer in Vietnam.

"Generically, the Army has a large number of people who don't like smart folks, or [people] perceived to be smarter than they," said Lionel Ingram, a West Point friend who was also among the brightest in his class. "They don't like people who are successful. The Army does have to some degree, among some people, an anti-intellectual bias."

As Clark pursues the presidency of the United States -- the first elective office he has sought -- he is without a voting record, and his political leanings have ranged from being a Nixon-supporting hawk to a Clinton-like internationalist and opponent of the Iraq war who earlier said he "probably" would have voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war. From the age of 14, Clark's ambition was to be a US general; his four stars attest to his success, just as his sudden retirement in 2000 reveals the way fellow officers maneuvered -- some say conspired -- to oust him.

Now, at 58, Clark has a new ambition on an uncertain battlefield, opportunistically targeting political foes he believes are weak -- the eight other Democratic candidates and Bush. "Campaigning is like the military motor pool," he remarked as he crisscrossed the country, "only better."

The early years

Wesley Kanne (pronounced KAY-nee) was born in Chicago on Dec. 23, 1944. His mother, Veneta, a Methodist, had left behind her native Little Rock to fulfill her dream of finding better opportunities in Chicago. His father, whose own parents had left Russia to find a better life, was a Jewish attorney named Benjamin Kanne.

Such mixed religious marriages were unusual at the time. The Kanne family was proud of its heritage but was not overtly religious, according to Harriet Salk, a family member who was one of young Wesley's playmates.

A graduate of Chicago-Kent School of Law, Ben Kanne served as an assistant city prosecutor, attorney for the Chicago Sanitary District, and then, for 17 years, as assistant corporation counsel, which was a senior position in the city's legal department. Notably, the Chicago Bar Record says that Kanne was "very active in local Democratic politics, and at the time of his death was secretary of the Fourth Ward Democratic Organization."

Ben Kanne was a delegate at the 1932 Democratic National Convention and -- unlike his son -- appears to have been a lifelong party stalwart. Kanne was also a member of a reform synagogue called the KAM Temple and a member of the Jewish War Veterans. (Kanne was in the Naval Reserve but did not see combat.)

"He was a big factor in my life," Clark said. "I remember he went out to buy me a present every Saturday. I remember he read to me every night. He loved three things: pinochle, horses, and politics -- plus my mother and me."

One day in December 1948, Ben Kanne went to the doctor for a checkup and was pronounced in good health. A few hours later, the 51-year-old was dead of a heart attack. He left behind a diamond ring (which Wesley Clark wears to this day), and, according to probate records, a four-door Buick worth $250, and $464.68 after funeral and court costs.

The Kanne family was devastated. Clark, who was nearly 4 at the time, recalls the trauma, and family members say he developed a speech impediment. After her husband's sudden death, Veneta told relatives it was too difficult to stay in Chicago, financially and emotionally, and she moved back to her parents' house in Arkansas.

Little Rock, however, was not Chicago, and Veneta apparently feared that the revelation of Wesley's Jewish heritage might lead to problems in Arkansas. Little Rock was infamous for its racial segregation, and for an active Ku Klux Klan that targeted Jews as well as blacks. Wesley attended a Southern Baptist church in Little Rock, and for two decades, until he was in his 20s, he remained unaware of his family's Jewish heritage.

Veneta died in 1986, but her sister vividly recalls why Veneta kept the ancestral truth from Wesley. "It was just the era, the time, that if you were Jewish you were not accepted everywhere," Shirley Donoho said. "She was afraid it would affect Wesley's future in some way. Right there in Little Rock, the Little Rock Country Club kept Jewish people out for a long time. Thank goodness that time has passed."

Veneta found a job at a local bank and saved enough money to purchase a one-story Sears Craftsman house on the lyrically named Valentine Street, set in a modest neighborhood of hills just west of downtown. From a cliff overlooking the Arkansas River, one could see downtown to the east. To the west, just a dozen miles distant, was Pinnacle Valley, where the stony cap of Pinnacle Mountain rose more than 1,000 feet and the surrounding piney hillocks spread like so many loaves of sugar.

While working at the bank, Veneta met a bank vice president named Victor Clark. He had been previously divorced, and from that marriage had one child, whom Wesley Clark says he never met. He also was a heavy drinker who eventually was forced to spend six months in a Missouri sanitarium. Victor Clark ended his drinking, but by then the drinking had ended his banking career.

Veneta married him, and found herself often supporting him. At one point he tried to make a living by buying a fish-and-tackle store in Stuttgart, where young Wesley helped out. Meanwhile, the boy's name was changed: Wesley Kanne became Wesley K. Clark.

Wesley Clark spent his weekends fishing and hunting, learning to shoot a gun by age 7. Picnics were usually punctuated by a session of target practice using beer and soda cans. Victor Clark carried in his tackle box a .22 caliber gun, which he used to kill loggerhead turtles unfortunate enough to get tangled up in his fishing lines.

A father figure

Amid the foothills 45 minutes from downtown Little Rock, off a dusty dirt road, the local Boys' Club ran one of the nation's oldest camps, with a scattering of stone-and-wood cabins and everything that a 14-year-old boy could want: swimming, fishing, fellowship. Like so much of Little Rock society, segregation was the rule: Black campers were not admitted until the the mid-1960s.

For young Wes Clark, the Boys' Club was a chance for adventure, and independence. It was run by a man who became a father figure to Clark, a World War II veteran named Jimmy Miller. From Miller, Clark honed his competitive swimming technique, which helped give him a lifelong love of the sport. It is telling that when Clark is asked about the most significant events in his life, he picks one from this period.

One day, Clark and some fellow campers who were preparing to be counselors wandered down the road along the Little Maumelle River, hoping for a skinny dip. When Miller spotted them, he said he would refuse to make them counselors unless they proved they could jump off the big red iron bridge spanning the river. Clark took the dare, and after much nervous hesitation, plunged into the water. As he later wrote, "The afterglow lasted a good two weeks, at least. Or maybe 40 years. You have to have courage and faith. And you have to expect to go through some trials to be a leader."

In 1958, after Little Rock's Central High School was forcibly integrated by the federal government, citizens had overwhelmingly voted to shut down the public high schools. In the fall of 1959, with Wesley set to enter the new Hall High School in suburban Little Rock, a nondescript facility that was viewed as a "white" school, his parents worried the high schools would once again be closed. So they enrolled him in Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tenn., 380 miles away. It was at Castle Heights that Clark's conflicted emotions about the military began to emerge.

While he had aspired to a soldier's life from an early age,

"I have never enjoyed standing inspections, polishing shoes, marching in parades," Clark said. "It just seemed like three or four hours wasted."

At the same time, some aspects of the military deeply appealed to Clark, particularly the sense of order and purpose and duty. When he returned from his year at Castle Heights, one of his first comments to his cousin, Mary Campbell, was prophetic: "I want to be a general." Tensions were still running high when Clark returned to Little Rock public schools in 1960, a year after Hall was integrated with less fanfare than was Central High. The more than 700 members of the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades had been all white. Under the federal integration order, three black girls entered Hall, one in each of the grades. They called themselves "the three E's," Effie, Elsie, and Estella.

"It was just as life-altering and traumatic for us" to enter Hall High as it was for the Little Rock Nine to enter Central High, recalled Estella Johnson. When she received an "A" on a report, she remembers, white students wrote obscenities on the paper. She found tacks on her chair, and many unkind people.

She remembers Wesley Clark this way: "There were three kinds of people there. Those who overtly bothered us, those who were friendly, and those who left us alone -- and he left us alone."

Elsie Dodson, the lone black in Clark's grade, recalls that she had no white friends at Hall High. "It is like being in a war zone, where you are around mostly enemy," said Dodson, who worked for 26 years as a Veterans Administration nurse. She has never talked to Clark, though she has followed his career from a distance and said she would support his presidential bid. "He was one of those classic smart kids," she said.

Over the years, Clark and his classmates have attempted to apologize to Dodson. Last year, his Class of 1962 sent her a letter in which they wrote, "We did not make you feel welcome and a part of our class." But Dodson said that while she has forgiven her former classmates she declined their invitation to a class reunion. "I could care less about returning to a class reunion where I didn't have friends," she said.

Clark, who today supports affirmative action and highlights his work with African-Americans in the military, looks downcast when asked about his experience at the center of the nation's racial history. While he remembers the young black pioneers, he says he had no contact with them. The experience, Clark says, marks him to this day.

"The odd thing about it was that people just didn't understand," Clark said. "They just didn't understand they were wrong about their views. I was pretty much open. I always looked at everyone pretty much as an individual. I also knew that in the society around me this was a source of enormous controversy." Born in the North, Clark didn't quite fit in Little Rock, either, although he managed to produce an Arkansas twang.

"You have those kind of experiences," he said. "They shape your entire life. You always have a certain sympathy for people who for whatever reason have to come from outside the group and have to make their way inside the group. I have always felt that."

The kings and queens of Hall High were the football players and the cheerleaders. Clark was something of a geek. He and about 10 of his friends were considered the brainiest on campus, and when Hall High School introduced the first calculus class in the history of Arkansas public schools in 1961, Clark and his buddies signed up.

In a state where football rules, Clark wanted to continue the swimming he had enjoyed at Castle Heights. When he learned that there was no Hall High swim team, he formed one and became its captain. One day, when the team was scheduled to compete at a state meet, one of the relay team's four members became ill, leaving the relay team one swimmer short. Team member Phil McMath remembers what Clark said: "I'll do it." Clark swam the first and fourth laps, and the Hall team won the meet.

On to West Point

By age 16, Clark decided he wanted to go to West Point, the Army's prestigious military academy in New York, even though its military rituals were bound to be more intensive than those he had disliked at Castle Heights. But after both US senators from Arkansas refused to nominate him, he took an admissions test overseen by an Arkansas congressman who also had the right to nominate West Point candidates. Clark came in first and won the assignment.

West Point, set upon the highlands overlooking the Hudson River, was the pinnacle of Army education. The cadets that year had a motto that bespoke their belief in destiny: "Fame will mix with the Class of `66." It was true: Of the 579 graduates, 30 would die in Vietnam, the most ever in a West Point class.

But Vietnam was barely on the horizon in 1962, when Clark strode onto the parade grounds of the Plain and marched in the shadow of the Gothic halls of stone. This was the ultimate boys' club, complete with a swimming team for a plebe like Clark. But if Clark disdained the military rituals at Castle Heights three years earlier, he was hardly prepared for the depths to which upperclassmen would dwell in their efforts to humiliate and practically torture aspiring soldiers.

West Point was designed to break boys and make men, even if it meant breaking the rules. In Clark's first year, the young plebe learned what hazing was all about. Clark was a skinny young man at 144 pounds, and upperclassmen found him an easy mark. After a week of physical torment, Clark says, he lost 15 pounds.

Then one day, in a basement area known as the "sinks," he was confronted by some upperclassmen preparing for an Army-style hazing. He was dressed in a thin cotton robe.

"You better sweat through that beach robe, mister!" an upperclassman yelled at Clark, inches from his face. "You better throw your head back, you better suck in that chin, you hear me?"

Clark responded by inadvertently smirking, a serious breach of plebe protocol. The upperclassmen punished Clark by squeezing him into a locker that was barely a foot wide, and then rocking it until the clothing hooks hit the sides of his head.

Clark couldn't convince the upperclassmen to let him out. Fortunately, a sympathetic senior named Lionel Ingram happened along. "Knock that off, and leave that man alone," Ingram bellowed, according to Clark. Ingram, who now teaches international relations at the University of New Hampshire, became a friend for life.

If, as Ingram has said, some in the Army targeted those with high intellect, then Clark had a bull's-eye on his back. Shortly after arriving, Clark told his roommate, Theodore Hill: "I'm going to be No. 1 in the class," and made good on his pledge. And everyone knew it. Grades were posted at Sally Port, the portal to the Plain, and Clark literally sat at the head of the class. Hill, who was near the top of the class, was awed by his roommate's confidence. Predictably, the two were labeled eggheads and became the subject of constant hazing.

"I remember he would be angry at some of the people who went out of their way to harass him because he was doing well academically, or [they] didn't think he was macho enough," Hill said. "Wes is not one of these back-slapping, everybody-is-my-buddy types. He is a private person. I think some people were just intimidated by his intellectual power. But I loved it. We talked for hours."

Despite their outward awkwardness -- Clark once wore his large glasses upside-down when the lenses were installed incorrectly -- Clark and Hill found a way to break the rules. When they learned that a room had been left unoccupied, they commandeered a key, put cardboard on the windows and "liberated" a pool table. The room became a private haven for dates with girls and especially for long discussions. "We were happy to be pulling one over on the authorities," Hill said.

Clark made a crucial decision midway through his West Point education. He quit the swim team to join the debate team, which offered him not only an intellectual avenue he craved but also a way to get off campus on many weekends. His debate coach, William Taylor, vividly recalls receiving a complaint one day from Captain Norman Schwarzkopf, then a West Point instructor who would go on to command the first Gulf War.

"I don't like what you are doing with cadet Wes Clark," Schwarzkopf said, according to Taylor. "He is not competing with varsity athletics. He is not socializing with the rest of his classmates. He is off doing debate tournaments. You are undermining the professionalism of this young man."

"I don't know who you are," Taylor told Schwarzkopf, and after defending the virtues of debate, hung up the phone. Schwarzkopf could not be reached for comment, but Taylor said the incident illustrates the tensions that would follow Clark throughout his career.

The debate travel also helped Clark find time for dates with his girlfriend, Gertrude Kingston of Brooklyn, a Wall Street executive assistant whom Clark had met in 1964, when he crashed a Navy party in New York City that Kingston had reluctantly attended.

On June 7, 1966, the day before graduation, Clark was preparing for what should have been the most glorious day of his life. He was going to receive five top honors at a graduation ceremony that was to be attended by Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But Clark, who had traded his thick glasses for contact lenses, apparently left the contacts in his eyes for too long. A long-forgotten photo shows Clark, huge bandages covering his eyes, in a hospital bed, shaking hands with the academy superintendent.

"Top man at West Point was in hospital," said the caption on the Associated Press photo, published in the June 8, 1966, edition of The New York Times. "Cadet Capt. Wesley K. Clark of Little Rock, Ark., No. 1 man in his graduating class and a Rhodes Scholar, is visited by his parents and Maj. Gen. Donald V. Bennett, the academy superintendent. Cadet suffered corneal abrasions of both eyes, apparently from overwearing contact lenses Monday." The accompanying story described Clark as "about the saddest of all the graduates."

With that ignoble sendoff -- Clark did recover enough to receive his diploma at graduation ceremonies the next day -- Clark departed West Point. But his destination wasn't combat in Vietnam, like many of his fellow graduates. Instead, he was about to land in Oxford, England, for a two-year Rhodes scholarship.

At Oxford's Magdalen College, Clark studied politics, philosophy, and economics. During his time abroad he defended America's role in Vietnam in debates with antiwar students, speaking on behalf of the US war effort. He also regularly heard reports about classmates fighting -- and a few dying -- in Vietnam. One of those killed was Arthur M. Parker III, who had roomed with Clark during his senior year at West Point. Parker was struck by a rotating helicopter blade while trying to rescue a comrade. He left behind a wife and child.

Another close friend was a fellow West Pointer and Rhodes Scholar named Alex Hottell. Clark's girlfriend, Gertrude, had shared housing with Hottell and his wife for a couple of months before she married Clark in the summer of 1967. One night, Clark and Hottell had discussed the possibility of dying in Vietnam. As Clark later wrote, the two agreed that "if there's nothing worth fighting and dying for, then there's nothing worth living for." Hottell even wrote his own obituary, expressing similar sentiments, in case he died. Their discussion was sadly prescient: Hottell was killed in a 1970 helicopter crash in Vietnam.

Clark apparently felt some guilt about staying behind to study at Oxford, and he assured another fellow Rhodes Scholar, Stewart Early, that he would fight when he finished his studies. Often, the two friends would stay out past the midnight curfew, forcing them to climb over Magdalen's locked gates. On at least one occasion, Early recalled, Clark lost his pants as he scrambled over the wall.

Perhaps the most bitter experience for Clark at Oxford occurred when he went to church. As a southern Baptist, he attended Protestant services, where he felt under attack.

"When I went to Protestant services in England, there was a tremendous passion against America's [involvement] in Vietnam," Clark said. "It became personal against the men in the armed services. It wasn't just the policy. It was the people. To me, that wasn't an atmosphere in which I felt comfortable."

By contrast, the Catholic church, in which Gertrude was a member, was a refuge, Clark believed. "It was reasoned, structured, ordered consistency," Clark said, qualities that he valued. After abiding by rules that Clark said required him to remain a bachelor for the first year of his Rhodes scholarship, Clark married Gertrude and embraced Catholicism, converting more than a year later in Vietnam.

In the interim, though, Clark finally learned the surprising news about his own religious background, when a relative from the Kanne side of his family called him and asked to meet him. The relative, who had discussed the matter with Clark's mother, then informed Clark of his father's Jewish heritage.

Clark called his former West Point roommate, Theodore Hill, with the news.

"He was in shock. He asked me how I would feel," Hill recalled. "I told him it was a spectacular, positive thing. I think he was quiet. I think he agreed. He was just realizing how much he had learned just from that one piece of information." Since then, Clark has visited many times with his long-lost Kanne relatives and today is close to many of them.

Ambush in the jungle

After six years of education, Clark was ready to go to Vietnam. A former West Point professor, Rick Brown, who had recommended Clark for the Rhodes Scholarship, now eyed Clark as the ideal candidate to help him in the war.

"Wes just had incandescent potential," Brown said. "When he came back from his Rhodes . . . my first reaction was, here was a chance to get Wes to the theater."

Clark arrived in Vietnam in July 1969, working for Brown for six months in a concrete-reinforced bunker as an assistant operations officer for the Army's First Infantry Division. Some associates recall that one of Clark's jobs was to compile the infamous "body count," the much-ridiculed accounting of enemies killed in action, but Clark doesn't remember performing that job. During this time, Clark was absent for the November birth in Florida of his only child, Wes Jr.

In January 1970, six months after his arrival, Clark got his chance to see combat firsthand when he became a captain of a 100-man company known as the 1st/16th. Clark had been disturbed by the morale of US troops, knowing that some were draftees who didn't want to serve. Drug abuse was prevalent, and public support back home was weak, Clark recalled. But members of Clark's company proved willing to risk their lives to protect him under fire.

The ambush in February that left him bloodied and lying on the ground "all happened in two-tenths of a second, but it seemed like an eternity," Clark said. The company medic "thought I had a sucking chest wound because [of] the blood all over the back of my shirt. He is trying to get me to stay still and talking, whereas all I can do is use command voice, so that is what I did."

Clark's Silver Star citation says Clark, although painfully wounded, "immediately directed his men on a counterassault of the enemy position. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Captain Clark remained with his unit until the reactionary force arrived and the situation was well in hand."

Clark recalled watching McClintic, the sniper at his side, get hit by fire. "The guy was actually there firing back while I was hollering at the company to come up, and he is the guy I am looking at right in front of me. I never had a chance to say goodbye to these guys or anything."

McClintic, who saved the AK-47 round that was later extracted from his body, remembers that Clark "was kind of staggering. I knocked him down and rolled him away. We were cut off and pinned down, and that is when I got wounded." Eventually, the other troops called by Clark arrived and secured the area. The enemy was driven way, with none captured or killed. Clark was extracted by a helicopter rescue team. McClintic, meanwhile, played down his role, saying, "I would have done the same for you or anybody."

Because Clark's wounds -- on his right shoulder, right hand, right hip, and right leg -- were too serious to be treated at a US facility in Vietnam, he was shipped to a base in Japan. One day, Ted Hill, Clark's former West Point roommate, visited Clark and was appalled to find that Clark was confined in a rancid room and prohibited from leaving the area. So in the middle of the night, Hill secured a blue bathrobe -- worn by those permitted to leave the hospital -- and a wheelchair and pushed Clark out of the hospital, each bump causing Clark great agony.

The pair holed up at the officer's club and proceeded to get drunk. When they returned, the young men found that the head nurse had left a note on Clark's bed, demanding that he report to her at once.

A tipsy Clark appeared before the nurse, attempted to salute, and said, as if addressing the commander of West Point, "Captain Clark, reporting to the head nurse, as ordered, sir!"

Fortunately for Clark, the nurse showed some sympathy and didn't penalize the young soldier. He had what is known as the "million dollar wound" -- bad enough to warrant an end of combat service, but not life-threatening. Captain Clark was heading home.

Tomorrow: General plans his next battle. Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff, Richard Pennington of the Globe library, and genealogist Jeanne Lazalere Bloom contributed to this report. Michael Kranish can be reached at

the series
Part one:
Little Rock boy chooses military path
Part two:
 CANDIDATE IN THE MAKING: An Arkansas alliance, and high-ranking foes
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