Wesley Clark | Interview
He led an army. Now he heads a reality TV show.
It seems incongruous: Wesley Clark, who led NATO forces during the Kosovo War, fondly reminisces about the first four years of his life, spent in Chicago: “Every Saturday my father took me to Marshall Field’s, and I got a present of some type.” But it’s no more incongruous than the former military man and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate hosting a reality show. On NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes, celebrities, including Todd Palin and Dean Cain, pair up with operatives to complete military-style missions. Clark spoke by phone while finishing production in Burbank, California.
You’ve said Stars Earn Stripes honors everyone who’s served in uniform. A lofty goal for a reality show. How does it achieve that?
When you meet the people in uniform and see what they do, it’s evident. [The operatives’] commitment to the country just shines through.
What are some of the missions?
They’re military-inspired missions. In every mission you have to engage and destroy targets. Representative missions would be inserting behind enemy lines, moving to a designated location.
And by “targets,” you mean people?
Well, in some cases they’re not. In some cases they’re buildings or structures.
These missions concern matters of life and death, yet here they’re made into entertainment for television audiences.
The best education is entertaining, and what we’re really doing is education through entertainment.
Did you ever think when you were watching, say, Todd Palin attempt to climb a wall, Let me show you how it’s really done?
I admire the celebrities for volunteering to come on the show because it’s not easy to put your reputation on the line with these missions. They knew they’d be physically demanding, so you had a risk of not looking so good on camera.
Putting one’s reputation on the line: I imagine that occurred to you as a retired four-star general hosting a reality TV show.
I didn’t think of it exactly in those terms. What I saw it as was an opportunity to honor veterans. I did this because this is the way you communicate with young people today. Young people look at life through the lens of reality TV.
Do you ever watch reality TV yourself?
Occasionally. But mostly I don’t watch TV. I saw the British Open. That was kind of a reality show.
You don’t watch golf?
Seems kinda dull, no?
It’s extremely interesting because if you play at all you realize what a challenging sport it is. It involves the sense of complete balance, control—physical and emotional—and you have to deal with the bad breaks that are not really your fault. It’s a little bit of skill, it’s a little bit of gamble.
There’s a theme in articles about your military career that other generals were jealous of you and your success, having graduated first at West Point, being a Rhodes Scholar. Any truth to that?
Like every big organization, there’s politics at the top.
So…is that a yes?
It’s just the way organizations are. It’s just human dynamics. The military is a pyramidal system. It’s up or out. Some people get picked, some people don’t. It’s no different than any business.
After the Bush administration shut you out following 9/11, you reportedly said you would’ve been a Republican if Karl Rove had returned your calls. Did you shift from Republican to Democrat later in life?
I was honored to be a White House fellow during the Ford administration. I knew Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld during that period. I was very comfortable with these people. And then as a general officer I was traveling to the White House during a Democratic administration. But I was never affiliated with any party.
You voted for Reagan and Nixon.
If someone votes for someone, does that make them a member of that party?
Not necessarily, but that’s why I’m asking.
When you’re in the Armed Forces, you serve the commander in chief, whatever party he is. When you’re retired, you’re like any other American citizen.
Any advice for Obama as his first term ends?
If I were to give him advice, I’d give it privately.
What public words can you say?
I’m very proud of the national-security decisions he’s made, particularly the decision to take out Osama bin Laden. He’s been good for veterans. He’s worked hard to try to ameliorate the bitter partisanship of Washington.
“President Romney”: What do you think?
I think it’s politics that really don’t have anything to do with our interview. [Laughs] This is the political season, and what we’re trying to do with this show is bring the human dimension of modern warfare to the American people. It has nothing to do with politics or who’s President.
Stars Earn Stripes premieres August 13 on NBC.