I have a problem with Wesley Clark’s former boss and current bad-mouther, Gen. Hugh Shelton. The problem has to do with Shelton’s integrity and character. Let’s just say that if Shelton runs for office, he won’t get my vote.
InsertArt(2027502)A COUPLE OF weeks ago, Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked at a forum in California, “What do you think of Gen. Wesley Clark, and would you support him as a presidential candidate?” Shelton replied, “I’ve known Wes for a long time. I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early [i.e., was forced to step down as commander of U.S. forces in Europe] had to do with integrity and character issues, things that are very near and dear to my heart. I’m not going to say whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat. I’ll just say Wes won’t get my vote.”
WORD OF MOUTH
Shelton’s remarks appeared in the Los Altos Town Crier on Sept. 23. On Sept. 24, the Republican National Committee disseminated them in an e-mail alert. The New York Times sought clarification from Shelton but reported that he “could not be reached for comment.”
Since then, the remarks have reappeared in numerous wire stories, TV broadcasts, and newspaper articles. The New York Post trumpeted “the revelation that [Shelton] says Clark lacks the character to be president” and suggested it was one of several “hints that maybe Clark isn’t all that.” A Post op-ed added, “It makes you suspect that [Shelton] knows whereof he speaks when he says Clark’s forced early retirement as head of NATO ‘had to do with integrity and character issues.’ ” On CNBC, former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., asked, “What do we know about [Clark]? He supported Bush. He said nice things about Condi Rice. Gen. Shelton says that there’s issues of character and integrity that need to be discussed.” On Fox News, Tony Snow said Clark “didn’t run the military. He was run out of the military. … [Shelton] says Clark was, in effect, fired as the supreme allied commander for reasons of integrity and character.”
I’ve searched news databases and found only one person who’s pointed out that Shelton has a duty to clarify his accusation. Last Friday, my colleague, Chris Suellentrop, appeared on the Fox News show The Big Story With John Gibson. Gibson recited Shelton’s quotes, posited that Shelton “had to have a good reason” to fire Clark, and concluded, “Integrity — that means, does the guy lie? Does he tell the truth to his bosses?” Suellentrop argued that Shelton “should say more of what he means by that. What character issues? What integrity issues?” But Gibson persisted:
Why do you think it is that none of the other nine candidates in this debate yesterday didn’t turn around and say, Gen. Clark, what integrity issues, what character issues, why were you fired? No one said a word about this. Is somebody covering something up or are they just … Is there a khaki wall that is going to close around Clark and we are not going to find out what it was that Hugh Shelton and evidently more people at that level felt about him? … Could it be because these issues, the words “integrity and character,” are so large that if [Democratic rivals] fried Clark now they may not have somebody that they want to run with [on the ticket]? The Democrats cannot attack this guy or find out what these issues were because it’s too bad, they may need him?
SECRETS AND LIES
Whoa. We don’t know that Clark lied. We don’t know that the grounds on which Shelton got rid of him were valid. We don’t know that when Shelton challenges Clark’s integrity, Shelton knows whereof he speaks. We don’t know that “more people” at Shelton’s level doubted Clark’s integrity. All we know is that some military honchos have criticized Clark’s style anonymously and that Shelton has challenged Clark’s integrity. We don’t know whether these two sets of allegations are related, or whether other military leaders who have issues with Clark would characterize them as issues of integrity.
What we do know from widespread reporting is that Shelton resented Clark for going over his head to the Clinton White House, the State Department, and the media. That’s the closest thing to a Clark-Shelton “integrity” issue I can find in the public record. If that’s Shelton’s beef, he ought to say so and let others judge whether it calls into question Clark’s integrity.
While he’s at it, Shelton ought to explain why, if sneaking around your boss to go to the media is a grave character issue, sneaking around your former subordinate to go to the media with an unfalsifiable insinuation about him isn’t. Clark says Shelton never came to him directly: “I have never heard anything about these integrity and character issues.” Clark also says he has “no idea” what they are. Until Shelton clarifies the charge, Clark can’t rebut it. He’s presumed guilty of something serious. That’s why Gibson’s complaint is upside-down. If somebody is covering up what Shelton is talking about, that somebody is Shelton. And the cover-up isn’t helping Clark; it’s hurting him.
A wise friend once told me you can learn more about somebody from what he says about others than from what others say about him. Given what I’ve heard so far from Clark and Shelton, if I had to vote for one of them based on integrity and character, I’d go with Clark.
William Saletan is Slate’s chief political correspondent.