WASHINGTON -- Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general who is running for president, got himself in hot water with his Pentagon bosses more than once in his 34-year military career.
Clark matter-of-factly recounts a time when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was so irked he grumbled that Clark had "one foot on a banana peel and one foot in the grave." As it turned out, less than a year later Clark was yanked out of his job as NATO's supreme allied commander early, his military career abruptly over.
Plenty of generals in the U.S. military have been chewed out, of course. And plenty of Clark's former colleagues in the military speak highly of him. But it is notable that a number of fellow retired officers now speak frankly about what they see as his shortcomings as a leader.
The man who vaulted to the head of the Democratic pack since declaring his candidacy three weeks ago is running on the luster of a standout career that took him from first in his class at West Point to a Silver Star earned in Vietnam to the top ranks of Pentagon brass.
Heated disputes over strategy and tactics, particularly during combat, are inevitable among officers at that level, but not questions about personal ethics.
So it raised eyebrows last month when the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, gave a barbed answer when asked what he thought about Clark as a presidential candidate.
"I've known Wes for a long time," Shelton said. "I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues, things that are very near and dear to my heart. ... I'll just say Wes won't get my vote."
Several other retired officers, while crediting Clark for tremendous intellect and determination, also raise questions about trustworthiness and whether his personal ambition and drive to succeed caused him to overstep his bounds and go outside the established chain of command.
Retired Gen. Dennis Reimer, a former Army chief of staff, describes Clark as an intelligent, "hardworking, ambitious individual who really applies himself hard."
But, Reimer said, "Some of us were concerned about the fact that he was focused too much upward and not down on the soldiers. I've always believed you ought to be looking down toward your soldiers and not up at how to please your boss. ... I just didn't see enough of that in Wes."
Clark, for his part, acknowledges he had conflicts with former Defense Secretary William Cohen and some top Pentagon officials. He attributes that in his memoir to pushing relentlessly against the military's "innate conservatism" to accomplish his assigned missions, particularly in Bosnia and during the 1999 Kosovo campaign.
Ret. Army Brig. Gen. David Grange, the U.S. commander in Bosnia at that time, says Clark was so focused on succeeding that "he would maybe not be cognizant of some of the feelings or concerns of some of the people around him."
"There's no question that General Clark is for General Clark," said Grange, who added nonetheless that Clark had always treated him well personally.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Marc Cisneros recalls hearing that Clark was competing against him in 1996 for a four-star position heading the U.S. Southern Command, a job for which the Army was backing Cisneros. Cisneros says Clark "just outright lied" when confronted, and denied to Cisneros that he was seeking the job, which did go to Clark. "I worry about his ethical standards regarding honesty and forthrightness," Cisneros said.
Clark campaign spokesman Matt Bennett said no one, particularly a high achiever such as Clark, can go through a 34-year career without ruffling some feathers or bruising egos. Further, the campaign pointed to a number of former generals who speak well of Clark.
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has known Clark for decades and counts him a friend, said one source of friction comes from the fact that Clark the intellect was not a natural fit in the Army culture. But he says Clark nonetheless proved himself a kind and capable leader.
"Look, for 34 years when there was a tough problem the local leadership asked Wes Clark to take on the problem," McCaffrey said. "This guy has been incredibly successful at doing the country's business."
Two other retired lieutenant generals who worked with Clark, Dan Christman and Don Kerrick, said friction involving Clark was to be expected as he tried to balance the interests of NATO allies and the United States.
"We knew that he was a man of his word and that he would deliver what we expected," said Kerrick, who was deputy national security adviser to President Clinton when Clark was at NATO.