We await Michael Moore's concession speech after his hero, General Wesley Clark, tasted the ashes of defeat in Tennessee and Virginia and sensibly threw in the towel.

            If Howard Dean was the hero of the dot-coms, Clark was a creation of the Arkansas-Hollywood axis embodied in Clinton-era stage managers such as Harry and Linda Thomason, Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson. It was supposed to be "The Man from Hope: The Sequel," this time with a genuine military officer rather than Bill the Draft Dodger. The rollout movie for the Clark campaign was Linda Thomason's "Native Son," alluding to Clark's early years in Little Rock.

            At Clark's elbow was Bruce Lindsay, former law partner of Bill Clinton and later his White House counsel. Lindsay put it about that Clark's mission was to stop Dean's meteoric surge, and Clark told reporters that the Clintons had urged him to get into the race. In the weeks before the Iowa caucus, Clark was the only Democratic candidate who was able to get Clinton to appear in a campaign commercial. Further glitzy support came from the Detroit-Hollywood axis of Michael Moore and Madonna, who, in the wake of her hero's withdrawal, has now said she's moving to France. Additional liberal backing came from the New York Review of Books, which ran an entire chapter of Clark's campaign bio.

            Tottering under the burdens of such sponsorship, Clark was soon sprawling in a heap of contradictions. Yes, he had supported the attack on Iraq, but yes, now he opposed it. Yes, the war was launched under fraudulent pretenses, but yes, he had agreed with Bush and Rumsfeld about the menace of Saddam Hussein's WMDs. It wasn't long before his campaign was dead in the water. The press was unkind, and voters couldn't figure what Clark was all about. Virginia was meant to be his big state, and he didn't break into double figures.

            Moral: Get Bill Clinton or Al Gore to throw you their support and you sink like a stone to the bottom. At least Gore's support of Dean was an honest bet on a man Gore thought was the likely winner and a good opponent to put up against Bush. As always, the Clintons were playing a selfish game. For them, Clark's function was to merely stop Dean, thus preserving their power within the Democratic National Committee. Day after day, Clinton Mafiosi like Terry McAuliffe, James Carville and Paul Begala worked the phones and the talk shows, deriding Dean. Their onslaught was very effective.

            Dean made his own mistakes and spent much of his $40 million foolishly on lousy campaign ads, but it's clear that in Iowa and New Hampshire he was up against the Democratic Party machine and lacked the experienced operators who might have saved the day. It was the party machine that pulled it out for Kerry, and once Kerry had those two crucial victories, the overwhelming eagerness of Democratic voters to anoint an uncontested champion to go up against Bush carried him forward.

            Across the last 30 years it's hard to think of a Democratic candidate seemingly assured of his party's nomination who has had less of a baptism of sewage in the primaries than Senator John Kerry. Normally a front-running candidate can expect a roughing up from his sparring partners. But Dean drew all the fire, with Clark as prime diversion and Kucinich as the small white hope of the progressive crowd. So Kerry's record has been allowed to remain in decorous seclusion.

            Kerry reminds me of no one so much as Mr. Facing-Both-Ways, in John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress."

            Kerry was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984, and in his first term he ventured onto some interesting and politically perilous terrain, with hearings into the scandal-ridden CIA-linked bank BCCI, and into the arms-for-cocaine Contra scandals in Central America. In the end he lost his nerve, and the hearings ultimately floundered to an inconclusive close. It was the last spark of vigor in a senatorial career of singular blandness and timidity.

            Already in the 1980s this supposed Massachusetts liberal (always an oversold species) supported the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act, a dagger in the heart of social programs. Kerry later renewed his commitment to the war on the poor by backing Clinton's onslaught on aid to poor mothers and their children, and more recently still, voting for the Bush tax cuts. In the Clinton years, Kerry positioned himself as one questioning the efficacy of affirmative action.

            With the first Gulf war at the start of the 1990s, Kerry changed positions so rapidly his staff grew dizzy with the effort of keeping up with their boss's gyrations. He finally voted against authorizing the war but almost immediately issued a press release supporting the invasion. The 2003 war found Kerry voting with the Bush administration, only to cast himself in the early primary season as an opponent.

            Kerry voted for Clinton's crime bill and for Clinton's Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which set the template for Bush's Patriot Act, which Kerry also voted for.

            Kerry had indulged himself in some dutiful populist rhetoric against Big Oil, the drug companies, the HMOs and "the influence peddlers. Given his overall record, these burbles are not to be taken seriously, as anything beyond campaign small-arms fire countering the occasional populist talk of John Edwards, his sometime rival on the primary trail.

            Most Democrats consider Kerry's record as irrelevant and view those with the bad taste to excavate it as active subverters of a righteous cause. But Karl Rove, Bush's political commissar, will not be so polite.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.