| The New York Times
See Dick Spin
By DAVID BROOKS March 27, 2004
Bass, Michael Hurley and Alexis Albion are not exactly household
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
they describe the ambiguities and constraints policy makers wrestled
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
source for them. But that was the old Richard Clarke. That was
Richard Clarke who could weigh the pros and cons of the Clinton and
Bush terror strategies. That was the Clarke who expressed
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
country, we speak only one language when it comes to public affairs,
the language of partisan warfare. So out goes Mr. Wonk.
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
Compared with the commission reports, Clarke's book, "Against All
Enemies," is as subtle as an episode of the Power Rangers.
Clarke courageously take control of the government in the middle of the
terror attacks! See him heroically lead a teleconference!
White House conversations! Everything he says is farsighted and
Everything the Bushies say is incorrect. And he remembers it all
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
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
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
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
and Bork hearings all over again — except this time the pretext for our
hatred just happens to be security policy. Conservatives,
myself, believe that Clarke has turned himself into a mendacious
glory-hound whose claims are contradictory. Liberals see him as
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
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
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 www.9-11commission.gov.