I watched rather dumbfounded last week when Richard Clarke testified in front of the 911 commission. It was almost as though we were back at the hearings on Clarence Thomas or Watergate. I was mesmerized from the start, when Clarke uttered his now famous apology, which was surely the shrewdest, most brilliant snippet of politcal oratory I’ve heard in years.
Equally remarkable, however, has been the take-no-prisoners smear campaign spearheaded by Bush’s lieutenants against Clarke, an ugly reminder of how nasty this administration gets whenever it feels threatened. (Remember Paul O’Neill just a couple of months ago? Same scenario, same full-frontal-assault tactics, same game of lambasting the accuser while ignoring the issues he brings up.)
Andrew Sullivan is quick to point out the lunacy of the administration’s response to Clarke:
I agree with the Washington Post yesterday that the more worrying sign is the way the White House has responded. They have been close to hysterical, defensive to an absurd degree and therefore unpersuasive. Their response to Clarke evokes far more doubts about their pre-9/11 conduct than anything Clarke could have mustered by himself. More evidence that they’re losing it. I think they realize they’re in trouble and don’t know quite how to right themselves. Hence the policy lurches – from Mars to [gay] marriage to steroids.
Determined to dig their own graves, the White House continues its refusal to let Condi testify before the commission in public and under oath. To understand just how convoluted, how deranged her argument for not testifying is, you simply must read Josh Marshall’s precious post using Condi’s own words to show how idiotic her reasoning (i.e., lack of reasoning) is.
So far the White House and various Republicans have spent an entire week spinning their wheels to make Clarke look bad by whatever means possible. One of the very slimiest was Senator Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert questioning whether Clarke had committed perjury because his testimony was contradicted by things he had said earlier.
But nothing is sticking. Having served under the last four presidents, in which capacity he has built a reputation for intelligence and fairness, Clarke simply can’t be torn down with dirty tricks, the only weapons the White House now has at its disposal. It was a real pleasure reading Josh Marshall this morning on the folly of the Frist/Hastert perjury charge — and how Clarke beat them at their game.
I think the early signs are that this perjury attack on Clarke was a major, major blunder. I don’t think the perpetrators of this ugly stunt even thought they’d ever get into a courtroom. That wasn’t the point: this was watercooler ammo. Something you get on to the news so that when Mr. X asks Mr. Y over the watercooler what he makes of Clarke’s testimony, Mr. Y responds, “Hell, that guy? He’s probably gonna get indicted for perjury. You can’t believe anything that guy says.”
Still, Clarke — who was unflappable on the shows this morning — and Hill Democrats seem to have immediately called Frist & Co.’s bluff. Not only have they welcomed the release of Clarke’s materials, they’ve called for the release of more documents, correspondence and testimony from him and Rice. Selective declassification would be very difficult in the current context — and could complicate efforts to keep so much other stuff out of the public’s view.
He’s made a clean sweep so far; out of nowhere, this bureaucrat many of us never heard of two weeks ago managed to turn the Bush administration on its head and call into question its main raison d’etre, national security. Something of a miracle, don’t you think?
So far the polls aren’t showing any significant change in public opinion toward Bush, but I think we’re just getting started. Condi eventually will testify, and between now and the moment she’s put under oath, the government will continue to lose credibility, as Sullivan says above. And Clarke is not going to vanish into the night. He has captured the media’s attention, ascending overnight to super-stardom, and at this very instant the first story on the evening news is all about Clarke and Condi.
This obviously has Bush and Rove twisted into knots. From now on, all praise of Bush’s national security policy will bring to mind Clarke’s charges calling that policy into deep doubt. Again, for a single-issue candidate this is nothing short of a catastrophe. And it didn’t have to be; the Condi Rice omerta exacerbated it infinitely, and has made the Administration appear frightened and defenseless in the wake of Clarke’s testimony. Amazing.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.