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The general's wife

As Wesley Clark runs for office, Gert Clark is in a familiar role

DOVER, N.H. -- It was a far cry from the quiet post-military life she once imagined. Gert Clark was wrapped in an overcoat in the frigid New Hampshire air, in front of a crowd of Arkansans huddled in the cold. They had come to cheer their hometown candidate, retired Army general Wesley K. Clark. But it wasn't long before their chants turned to the woman beside him with white-blonde hair: "Gert! Gert! Gert! Gert!"

 

This wouldn't have seemed possible a few months ago, when Gertrude Kingston Clark's reservations were the last thing that stood between her husband's interest in running for president and his entry in the race. "I think any woman would look at her family first," she said last month. "And politics can be very brutal on the family."

In the early days of the campaign, Gert Clark stayed home, reluctant to be a public figure. But suddenly in December, she became a fixture on the trail, accompanying her husband to events, holding his jacket and waving to crowds, mingling with voters on the sidelines, eventually making appearances on her own. And slipping into a role she played for more than three decades, the ceremonial -- and rather first-lady-like -- role of military spouse.

The Clarks saw themselves as partners at Army posts, she said: She was his eyes and ears among the rank and file, telling him about military families' concerns. They were envoys together when he headed the European Command, mingling with royalty at elegant dinners. They supported Republican candidates together, before their Democratic conversion; when he worked at the Pentagon in the mid-1990s, she volunteered almost daily for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas. Gert Clark even describes a political change of heart in lockstep with her husband's.

From Hutchison's office, where she worked on constituent services and military families' issues, she says, "I started seeing the rise of Tom DeLay and other people. For me, at least, I think that the Republican Party was too far to the right." As for her husband's increasingly harsh rhetoric against the Republican Party -- she agrees with him there, too. "I think the things that Wes is criticizing, I'm comfortable with, yes," she said.

Some of this season's would-be first ladies have famously defied tradition. On one end of the spectrum, Dr. Judith Steinberg, the wife of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, refuses to campaign and has talked of continuing to practice medicine if her husband reaches the White House. On the other, Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Senator John F. Kerry, talks candidly to the press and has made headlines of her own, dismissing candidate debates as "silly" and railing about the status of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Clark fits somewhere in the middle, closer to the expected norms of the political spouse. On the stump, she has gone from being seen but seldom heard to introducing speakers on her husband's recent "True Grits" Southern tour, then campaigning by herself in South Carolina. She often lingers on the edge of rooms, chatting with voters, her low voice traced with a native New York accent. She doesn't take part in policy decisions but says she discusses the campaign regularly with her husband.

"I certainly wouldn't criticize anybody else's spouse for their choices, because that would be wrong," she says. "Wes and I have always felt best in our marriage and in our lives when we've been a partnership."

Then she adds, "I don't mean that I'm going to go to Capitol Hill and get a health care bill passed."

Still, there's little doubt that, from her husband's standpoint, her opinion matters. During one New Hampshire event in mid-November, Wesley Clark realized he had told the crowd his wife had never worked, and he rushed to clarify the record.

"Correction! Correction! Save me! Wait!" he yelped, springing forward as if he had been pricked with something sharp. "My wife worked herself to death! She just didn't earn any money! That's all I meant!"

The role of a general's wife shares a fair amount in common with the role of a first lady -- or, given the rigidity of military hierarchies, the benevolent lady of a manor house. When Wesley Clark served as a commander in Colorado, California, Texas, Panama, and Europe, Gert Clark says she regularly talked with the families of soldiers who served under him about education, rent, and how they were treated by civilians. She volunteered with an advocacy group, the National Military Family Association.

And when her husband was NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, she played the role of a diplomat's spouse, traveling with him 200 days out of the year. She recalls landing on airstrips to find red carpets laid and bands playing, hobnobbing with princes and princesses, and holding conversations with Archduke Rudolf of Austria, "the last of the Hapsburgs."

It could be a rarefied life, recalls Cris Hernandez, a retired Army warrant officer who was the Clarks' personal security officer in Europe -- where they lived in a mansion in Mons, Belgium, donated by the Belgian government.

"The First Lady of SHAPE, I would call her," Hernandez says, using the miltary shorthand for the post, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. "If you would talk to people in Europe, the Clarks were very well known. When the Clarks went to a function, they were `the' couple, if you will."

But while generals' wives have a reputation for being aloof, he says, Gert Clark wasn't distant with her husband's immense staff, or the people under his command. Part of her purview was decorating the chateau for the holidays, he says; she would invite the wives of officers and enlisted soldiers to help. She arranged food and clothing drives for refugees, visited schools, and held luncheons with Army wives.

"She wasn't afraid to come down to our level," says Hernandez, who keeps in close touch with the Clarks. "We'd be flying back to the United States, she'd be back playing cards with the security guys. She'd come back there, flop down, and just start talking to us. We didn't look at her as being the general's wife."

Clark didn't come from a privileged background; she grew up in a family of six in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she attended Catholic schools and her father worked for Catholic Charities. (After her mother's death, she said, she began attending Protestant church and reading the Bible frequently.)

She recalls the time, at 19, when she reluctantly went to a USO dance that her father's secretary was organizing. There, she met a naive Arkansan with intense eyes who wasn't sure if the drink he was holding was, indeed, a Manhattan.

"He was very unique in so many ways," she says. "The way he looked and what he talked about. He had an innocence about him."

They dated on and off for two years, got engaged when he was a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, and married in June 1967.

Soon after they returned to the United States, he was sent to Vietnam. While he was away, he converted to Catholicism. She gave birth to their only child, Wes Jr. In Vietnam, Clark was shot three times and came back wounded in the shoulder, hand, hip, and leg.

"You're 25, 26 years of age, your husband comes back on a stretcher," she says. "It's an emotional challenge. But it's like everything else. You sort of just do it."

Now Wesley Clark is 59; Gert Clark won't confirm her age, telling an aide to pass on the adage that a lady shouldn't give her age or weight. After 34 years in the military, Wesley Clark retired in 2000. The Clarks settled in Little Rock, Arkansas, his hometown, where she joined the board of the Boys and Girls Club and he became an investment banker and registered lobbyist, joined corporate boards, and gave paid speeches. His income rose from $84,000 in 1999 to $1.6 million last year.

When he began testing the waters of a presidential campaign in 2002, he got ample encouragement from friends and strangers. But she was reluctant to leave her newfound private life behind, says Nancy Alsheimer, a friend since the 1980s.

"They had just started playing golf together, and she was having more of him," Alsheimer says. "This was going to change their lives considerably."

Alsheimer says she advised Gert Clark that if she couldn't find people to talk to amid the rigors of the trail, "just go into the bathroom and have a primeval scream." It's unclear whether she does. But she swears that once she decided to step into the race, she started to enjoy it.

She certainly looked that way last month in Columbia, S.C., when she joined her husband for the second church service he attended on a Sunday morning. The candidate had been quiet and still at the first church, occasionally whispering to his companions. But this time, when the music started soaring, Gert Clark started waving her arms in the air.

Soon he joined in, with slightly awkward, jerking motions, as if his muscles couldn't shake those years of military training. But with his wife smiling at his side, Wesley Clark waved and swayed and grinned through the entire service.

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