Bob Herbert, Snapping to Attention, NYT, Sept. 19, 2003

Democrats wandering like outcasts in a desert of disillusion have spotted—— what?

Is that a four-star general out there? You say he's from the South? And he's a Democrat who wants to be president?

All right, all right, calm down! Yes, the original lineup of Democratic candidates — Dean, Kerry, Lieberman, et al. — was a caravan of disappointments. But some questions must be asked.

Is Wesley Clark — first in his class at West Point, Rhodes scholar, former NATO supreme allied commander, holder of the Purple Heart and Silver Star — the real deal, or just a mirage?

Is this (by all accounts) brilliant former general really a dream candidate for the parched and leaderless Democrats, or just a dream?

In theory, he's almost perfect. He inoculates the Dems against the G.O.P. canard — now more than half a century old — that they are somehow less than patriotic. General Clark was severely wounded in combat in Vietnam and led the successful military operation in Kosovo in 1999.

Republicans are not eager to have the general's career contrasted with the military misadventures of George W. Bush, who escaped Vietnam by joining the Texas Air National Guard and who celebrated the alleged end to major combat in Iraq by staging his very own "Top Gun" fantasy aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

General Clark's instincts (or at least the little we know of them) seem to push him in the direction of bridge-building and cooperative efforts, which would be good for a party in disarray, and even better for a country that needs as many allies as possible in the fight against terror and other threats around the world.

With regard to the fight against terror, he has said the first order of business for the U.S. should have been an alliance of the U.S., the United Nations and NATO against Al Qaeda. As for Iraq, in a telephone conversation yesterday he told me the American people deserve to know a lot more about our rationale for invading.

"It's important to ask why the administration set the timeline in such a manner that they were unable to wait for an international coalition to emerge and work together," he said. "And why is it that they failed to plan adequately for the postwar task? Certainly the officers in uniform understood very well the difficulties and what could happen afterward. Why is it that the administration didn't want those difficulties aired?"

The problem, of course, is that presidencies are not won on paper. It takes awhile — sometimes too long — to determine what's real about a politician, any politician. Lyndon Johnson ran as a peace candidate in 1964. Richard Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. George Herbert Walker Bush told the voters to read his lips. Bill Clinton said, "I did not have sex. . . ." And George W. Bush assured us he was uniter, not a divider.

So we'll scrutinize General Clark, undoubtedly a lot more closely than he would like. Meanwhile, he's the flavor of the moment. He comes across as less angry than Howard Dean (who can give the impression that one-on-one he might put the president in a headlock). He seems more personable than John Kerry, more mature than John Edwards, more telegenic than Joe Lieberman and so on.

The general cheered Democrats with this swipe at Mr. Bush on Wednesday: "For the first time since Herbert Hoover's presidency, a president's economic policies have cost us more jobs than our economy has the energy to create."

But he also said that while his campaign is committed to asking hard questions and demanding answers, "we're going to do so not in destructive bickering or in personal attacks, but in the highest traditions of democratic dialogue."

The comparisons of General Clark to a fellow named Eisenhower are as overblown at this point as they are inevitable. But there's a lot that any candidate can learn from the Eisenhower model: the quick and endearing smile, the optimism, the quiet sense of strength, the ability to read and reflect the national mood.

We'll know a lot more about General Clark soon enough. Meanwhile, the Democrats should welcome him not as a savior but as someone with the potential to energize their stagnant field of presidential contenders.