The New York Times
See Dick Spin
By DAVID BROOKS             March 27, 2004

Warren Bass, Michael Hurley and Alexis Albion are not exactly household names.  But they are a few of the authors of the outstanding interim reports released by the 9/11 commission this week.  In clear, substantive and credible prose, these staff reports describe the errors successive administrations made leading up to the terror attacks.  More than that, they describe the ambiguities and constraints policy makers wrestled with.

But, of course, these reports were eclipsed.  This was the week the Richard Clarke circus came to town.

It should be said that Clarke used to be capable of the sort of balanced analysis contained in these reports. Indeed, he was a major source for them. But that was the old Richard Clarke.  That was the Richard Clarke who could weigh the pros and cons of the Clinton and Bush terror strategies.  That was the Clarke who expressed frustration at the glacial pace of the pre-9/11 antiterror policy process, but who also, in 2001, sent out e-mail praising the White House for alerting agencies to a possible attack, and who praised the Bush team for "vigorously" pursuing the Clinton strategy while deciding to quintuple the C.I.A.'s anti-Qaeda budget.

But that wonky Richard Clarke doesn't become a prime-time media sensation or sell hundreds of thousands of books.  Because in this country, we speak only one language when it comes to public affairs, the language of partisan warfare.  So out goes Mr. Wonk.  Clarke turns himself into an anti-Bush attack machine, and we get a case study of how serious bipartisan concern gets turned into a week of civil war. 

Compared with the commission reports, Clarke's book, "Against All Enemies," is as subtle as an episode of the Power Rangers.  See Dick Clarke courageously take control of the government in the middle of the terror attacks!  See him heroically lead a teleconference!  Behold his White House conversations!  Everything he says is farsighted and brave!  Everything the Bushies say is incorrect.  And he remembers it all perfectly! 

Clarke manages to absolve Bill Clinton for many of his mistakes — or Clarke says the vast right-wing conspiracy is to blame.  What about Clinton's decision not to bomb Al Qaeda's terrorist camps when we had a chance?  Not a mistake, Clarke now says.  We had higher priorities, like the former Yugoslavia. 

All of Bush's errors, on the other hand, are magnified.  Shrill passages about Bush's stupidity are inserted into Clarke's tendentious prose.  In 2002, Clarke said there was "no plan on Al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration."  But now Clinton is portrayed as the Winston Churchill of the antiterror brigades, and Bush is Neville Chamberlain.

And this week Clarke goes on a book tour and hypes it up another notch.  Time's Romesh Ratnesar recently compared Clarke's book with the representations he is making of it up and down the TV dial.  Ratnesar found that Clarke is sexing up his own stories to score political points.

So here we are in a familiar spot.  Instead of talking about the bipartisan failures and systematic shortcomings of our terror policy, we're seething at one another about one man.  It's the Clinton scandals and Bork hearings all over again — except this time the pretext for our hatred just happens to be security policy.  Conservatives, including myself, believe that Clarke has turned himself into a mendacious glory-hound whose claims are contradictory.  Liberals see him as the Erin Brockovich of the Bush years.

There's plenty of blame to go around.  Clarke deserves blame for his shrill partisanship.  The media deserve blame for neglecting the commission reports (The Times is an honorable exception).  Most important, the administration deserves blame.  Instead of focusing on the substantive commission reports and treating Clarke with the back of its hand, the Bush administration got right in the mud with him. 

Meanwhile, actual policy matters get tossed about in the roiling seas.  Though we never really had a discussion about it, now everybody is embracing pre-emptive action against potential terrorist threats.

This has not been a good week for American politics.  It's been another week (the 4,000th in a row, I believe) in which serious issues were treated as a soap opera.  If you want to live the soap opera, buy Clarke's book.  If you want something serious, read the commission reports.  You'll find them at