Radical About Face: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the General

I want to see a general in the White House. For a woman born and bred in Berkeley, a leading community in any anti-war movement, this urge should generate an identity crisis. But it doesn’t. That disorientation has already occurred. In seeking the presidency, former Supreme Allied Commander Wesley K. Clark fused my conflicted self and brought me back to Democratic ground.

The general and I have a lot in common. Now living in Istanbul, the Turkish site of four recent terrorist bombings, and a former ground zero resident with a view of New York’s smoking pile, my world is a war zone. Instead of activist or escapist pursuits, I choose geopolitical chess.

After September 11 I worried I was turning into a Republican, practically an out-of-body experience. Longtime leftist friends marched in the streets while I was glued to the couch, waiting for the latest Osama tape on Fox.

I was already apolitical, having come unmoored from the leftwing in my twenties, when superficies concerned me most. Ineffectual packaging and delivery of a message, a typical province of radicals, seemed the ultimate self-indulgence and more about making statements than differences.

But then I saw myself acting like someone else. I was displaying the flag in my New York apartment window, on my lapel, and in the car, without a hint of irony and much emotion. Brandishing the flag was a homecoming after a lifetime of being an outsider. There was a time when I felt I couldn’t even buy one.

At a 1975 church rummage sale, my sister and I coveted a star-spangled banner as a bedspread, but the elderly seller chastised our disrespect. I was better educated about icons of Communist China than emblems of the nation, my progressive school abandoning the pledge of allegiance that year for an alternative morning ritual: calisthenics to a scratchy Chairman Mao record.

Most people can’t go home again, but I can’t even visit. My bohemian parents no longer recognize my political identity as an offshoot of their own. One Berkeley notion I’ve sloughed, illustrated by NATO generals at my wedding (groom’s side) is that the military is solely negative.

My Northern Californian childhood was steeped in a fundamental enmity for the armed forces, sinister wing of an objectionable government. Instead of tying yellow ribbons around gnarled oaks, neighbors papered telephone poles to get the U.S. out of Latin America. When my rebellious younger sister requested an Air Force brochure, the corruptive material was confiscated directly from the postman.

However alien in our mailbox and out on the scruffy streets, the service was familiar to me. Counter to Berkeley counterculture, and owing to my father’s drafted acquaintance with Army discipline, I was raised in a spit and shine household. Excellence was the only option, elbow grease the lone method, hierarchy unimpeachable, and punishment swift. Ever grunts, my sisters and I scrubbed bathroom grout with toothbrushes and grew steely with push-ups when afoul of regulations, while good report cards and judo promotions netted weekend passes for R’n’R sleepovers at friends’ houses. I trained seventeen years in boot camp, I discovered in college.  A first year West Point cadet described the climate he was expected to endure at the elite academy. “They take away basic rights and give them back as privileges,” he whined, trying to impress me.

That particular West Pointer failed to stir me, but crisp four star General Clark has. On television after 9/11, Clark anchored my attention with his magnetic and commanding presence, and drew me to his reasoned and reasonable commentary about Iraq, the war on terror, and the importance of the U.N. and NATO.  Later, the grassroots draft of the worldly and diplomatic warrior stoked hopes for a better world.  Eighty year old Midwestern veterans called the general back to duty, West Coast thirtysomethings pledged unemployment checks, and Europeans ineligible to vote declared “the world needs you”.  In announcing his Democratic candidacy, the brilliant strategist and Rhodes Scholar restored my place in that party. I recognize my complicated self in the Democrat he defines, a patriot forged from diverse life experiences and high-stakes demands of our time. Clark’s erudite defense of our Constitution reverberates in my idealistic Berkeley heart.

With the general in the White House, America is my home.

In a brainy, principled, comprehensive Clark world I’m not a traitor because I performed calisthenics to Chairman Mao, and intense athletic and academic achievements made me the stalwart character I am today. Clark’s well-delivered presentation of important issues is standard.

A liberal in conservative uniform, a peace-lover who knows how and when to prosecute a successful war, a thinking man of action whose own self-respect is a pleasure to esteem, Clark is where I’ve been headed my whole life.