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General’s orders: Exclusive interview

Retired four-star general Wesley Clark thinks “don’t ask, don’t tell†needs to go and same-sex unions are here to stay. Can these pro-gay positions win him voters’ support—and the Democratic presidential nomination?

By Jon Barrett

Excerpted from The Advocate, February 3, 2004

It has been more than 10 years since a Democrat from Little Rock, Ark., first took on the military’s ban on gay service members, winding up with a compromise that was quickly dubbed “don’t ask, don’t tell.†Now another Democrat from Little Rock is tackling that compromise, saying it clearly doesn’t work and must be dismantled. As president, Gen. Wesley Clark is prepared to fix what his former commander in chief, Bill Clinton, left broken.

In a testament to how much has changed in the decade since “don’t ask, don’t tell†was born, all nine of the Democratic presidential candidates who are currently elbowing their way across the country say the policy is discriminatory. But the 59-year-old Clark, a retired four-star general and former NATO commander, could be the only one with enough brass to make a difference. As Steve Rawls of the military watchdog group Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund explains, “Military leaders will have a lot of sway in convincing Congress to change the policy, and General Clark obviously has a lot of stature within the military community.â€

But first The General, as his aides all refer to him, must win the nomination. To accomplish that, the campaign has a lot of work to do, admits spokesman Matt Bennett during a break from campaigning in New Hampshire in order to stump in New York City. “We’re running a 12-month campaign in nine months,†Bennett says.

Clark spoke to The Advocate the day after Al Gore endorsed the candidacy of former Vermont governor Howard Dean—a move that Clark shrugs off as having more to do with Gore than with Dean—the same day two retired brigadier generals and one rear admiral came out of the closet in The New York Times, a move Clark says deals significant blows to “don’t ask, don’t tell.â€

When it comes to gay issues, what makes you a better presidential candidate?

I’ve been in the armed forces. I’ve been at the very center of the firestorm. I know what it’s like out there. And I’ve had people who have come up to see me about it since I’ve been out [of the service]—gay and lesbian people who need help.

What are they saying?

They tell me that they want it fixed, and I agree. The armed forces are the last institution in America that discriminates against people. It ought to be the first that doesn’t. They ought to have the right to be who they are. They shouldn’t have to conceal their identities. You know, there are different models [that allow for gay people to serve openly]—the British have a model—and there is no impact on combat readiness. It’s a bogus issue.

I know your son was married recently. If your son had been born gay, would you want him to have the same rights that he enjoys today?

I would want him to have the right to have a stable relationship. But whether you call it marriage or not is up to the church or the synagogue or the mosque. And it’s up to the state legislatures. I think marriage is a term of art. It’s a term of usage. But the legal side of it is not: It’s not negotiable.

But about 40% of U.S. marriages every year happen without any religious participation.

I support whatever the state says. If the state of Massachusetts says we’re going to form a civil union but we’re going to call it marriage, then as far as I’m concerned, that’s marriage.

So you support Massachusetts’s calling it marriage?

Yeah, absolutely.

How do you think Congress would react to that?

Well, they’ll love it. This is exactly what they’re looking for. Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay and all those guys are looking for a real hand grenade to throw into the Democratic Party. It’s an absurd issue, and it’s one of the reasons I’m running. No one can accuse me of being soft on defense, and no one can accuse me of not knowing about what the armed forces are about. And when I say, “It’s OK,†then it’s OK, period. But elections aren’t always about common sense. And I think [Republicans] would love to frighten people.

How does the news about Al Gore’s endorsement of the Dean campaign change your strategy?

It doesn’t. The way you asked about it is exactly right. It’s not news about the presidential race; it’s just news about Gore. I think that it will create an impressionable momentum for Dean in the elite media. But it doesn’t change the reality.

Former Advocate senior news editor Jon Barrett lives in New York City.

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