Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The ambivalence of Wesley Clark

Could this be potential trouble for the general?

Clark May Have Broken Law in Paid Speeches
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2003; Page A06

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark may have violated federal election laws by discussing his presidential campaign during recent paid appearances, according to campaign finance experts.

Clark, a newcomer to presidential politics, touted his candidacy during paid appearances at DePauw University in Indiana and other campuses after he entered the presidential race on Sept. 17. Under the laws governing the financing of presidential campaigns, candidates cannot be paid by corporations, labor unions, individuals or even universities for campaign-related events. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) considers such paid political appearances akin to a financial contribution to a candidate.

Clark is getting paid as much as $30,000 for speeches, according to people familiar with his arrangement. He has two more scheduled for next week.

Now, this issue may just be a tempest in a teapot, but I think it demonstrates some of Clark's political naiveté. I can remember when Clark announced and there was some confusion about whether he would attend the next debate because it conflicted with a previously scheduled paid speech. I can remember thinking at the time that it seemed odd for a presidential candidate to accept money for speeches. 

William Oldaker, Clark's general counsel, said the retired general did not run afoul of FEC laws because Clark "is not attempting through those speeches to specifically . . . influence his election."

Oldaker said Clark only "incidentally" mentioned his candidacy in the speeches, and, therefore, the purpose of his appearances had nothing to do with his presidential campaign.

This is the kind of technical parsing that got Gore into trouble in 2000. Clark, by cutting it so close to the wire, is risking serious political damage if his opponents decide to use this against him. Frankly, it's just stupid and it demonstrates a lack of serious consideration on Clark's part that he did not immediately cancel all of his planned paid appearances. The fact that he wanted to continue to make these speeches, regardless of their legality, suggests that he is not 100% in this campaign. And believe me, as harsh as I may sound in my assessment of this, it will be nothing compared to what the Republicans will make of it.

Clark needs to demonstrate that he is really serious about running for the presidency. His long "will-he-or-won't-he" lead-up to his announcement. His last-minute embrace of the Democratic party. His initial waffling on whether he would appear in the Democratic debate. All of these are signs of a candidate who wants the job but may not fully appreciate the commitment that getting the job will require.

I hope I am wrong about this.


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