If you ventured into Chef's Restaurant a few days ago and thought that distinguished-looking fellow enjoying a salad and pasta was Wesley Clark, you were right on.
Clark – West Point valedictorian, Rhodes scholar, four-star general, supreme NATO commander, presidential candidate and current businessman and campaign adviser to President Obama – was in our town as part of a business venture with former Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon.
The general reflected with the Politics Column on the state of politics in America, which he observes from the unique vantage point of an international business consultant.
First and foremost, Clark is a Democrat. He sees a prominent place for government in America. He believes Eastern European countries like Romania, where he now consults, let the pendulum swing too far from government after the fall of communism.
"An example is [Romania], that has some of the richest farmland in Europe, but nothing like an agricultural extension service," he said. "It's about leadership by government."
So it's natural that Clark gravitates toward Democrat Obama, advising the campaign on foreign policy and energy. He expects to be in Ohio over the next few days – where else but the center of the political universe?
The general gets fired up not so much about jobs and taxes or Medicare and Social Security like other Democrats, but more about election laws and voter identification controversies. That's because he supervised the advent of free elections in places like Bosnia.
Americans, he says, can take for granted basic freedoms like elections.
Clark has witnessed what can happen in other countries and believes Americans would be outraged if voting freedoms were limited in any way. Foreigners, he says, can't believe such freedoms could ever be curtailed in America.
"They're shocked to hear that," he said. "To think that people would be inhibited in voting … it's like a movie about the old South or something."
Ditto, he says, for proposals to equip every voter with an identification card to prevent election fraud.
"We've never found the voter fraud," he said, supporting any effort to make voting easier rather than harder.
According to his point of view, real threats to liberty stem from voter ID cards and their implications.
"They organize these voter ID check teams to ask: Are you an American citizen? Can you prove it?" he said. "When I hear things like this, they jar me."
Some pundits speculate Clark could become secretary of state in a second Obama administration. He doesn't want to talk about such things. But he believes the president "did well" in the last debate devoted to foreign policy.
Indeed, he views Mitt Romney's performance as part of a strategy to look presidential despite no genuine foreign policy experience.
"It's not a real debate; just a strategy played by Gov. Romney," he said, "in the sense that he knew he's not practiced in foreign affairs. He just had to [avoid appearing] as if he didn't know something or be militaristic before a national audience."
You want to rile up this general? Ask him about politicians who say generals – and not the president – should set the withdrawal date from Afghanistan.
"Deferring to generals is not the right answer," he said. "The generals' job is to execute. The president's job and the voters' job is to select the policy.
"Do you want to go to war or do you want to have peace?" he asked, adding that a national conscription policy would have made a war with seven years of "no policy" a much more cogent topic with American voters.
Clark is an Obama guy. Most Democrats are. But his sterling resume validates the discussion stemming from his thought-provoking questions.
"The issue for both campaigns is: What happens now?" he said. "The debate is now over. What drives the dialogue?"