Sending Out the Smite Squad

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These are biblical times. The turning of the second millennium has brought war, rumors of war and all sorts of neo-Jehovian high jinks. Our leaders are plagued by enemies and temptations that have turned out to be divinely revelatory. Bill Clinton—the exemplar of baby-boom licentiousness and moral relativism—was brought low by a thong-flashing Gomorrean hussy; in the subsequent public scourging, his debauchery yielded more profound character flaws: his tendency to lawyer the truth, pity himself and blame others. And George W. Bush? This most publicly religious of Presidents has been set upon by a series of Old Testament prophets—first, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, ranting in the desert about the wages of fiscal irresponsibility, and now Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism expert, who evangelized before 9/11 about the al-Qaeda threat.

The President fulfilled his biblical responsibility: he ignored both prophets, who then amped their rants and wrote books (these days, prophets are not averse to profits). And as with Clinton, the subsequent brouhahas have revealed the most distinctly unpleasant—and not very righteous—side of the President. Unable to defend his policies in a coherent way and unwilling to acknowledge his mistakes, Bush responds to criticism with ugliness.

He doesn't mess around, either. On the day after Clarke first made his charge on 60 Minutes that before 9/11 the White House had minimized the terrorism threat, it sent out its biggest gun—the Vice President of the United States—to defend its performance. And where did Bush send Cheney to make the response on the most crucial issue of this presidency? There were many respectable forums available.

Indeed, the 9/11 commission was holding public hearings down the block and would gladly have interrupted the proceedings for a detailed explanation from the Vice President of why al-Qaeda slipped down the list of America's foreign policy priorities—below China, national missile defense and, apparently, Iraq—when the new Administration took over. But Cheney made his case on the Rush Limbaugh radio show. This was like George W. Bush choosing to deliver a State of the Union address on Imus.

Limbaugh began the Cheney interview with a serious question: "Why did the Administration keep Richard Clarke on the counterterrorism team when you all assumed office in January of 2001?" Cheney not only ducked it but gave an answer that was intentionally misleading: "Well, I wasn't directly involved in that decision. He was moved out of the counterterrorism business over to the cybersecurity side of things ..." (For the record: Clarke not only ran counterterrorism through 9/11 but remained on the job for another year as he watched in disgust the Administration divert its attention from al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.)

"Cybersecurity," Rush responded, with more than a bit of ridicule in his voice, "meaning Internet security?"

Cheney gave a reasonable answer to that one—the possibility of hacker terrorists getting into crucial defense-intelligence systems is serious business—but Rush was off to the races, laughing: "Well now, that explains a lot ..." And the Vice President played along: "Well ... he wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff."

"He was demoted," Rush replied, his intention now clear: to convey the impression that Clarke was more interested in AOL chat rooms than in al-Qaeda sleeper cells. Cheney agreed. "It was as though he clearly missed a lot of what was going on," he said, and then quickly went on to the Clinton Administration's sorry history of counterterrorism and Clarke's complicity in that.

Others have dealt with the fundamental inaccuracies of Cheney's statements. I'm more concerned about the snide, dismissive, undignified quality of the Vice President's performance. He set the ugly, personal tone for the week, for the coordinated attacks on Clarke's character and motives. (The merits of Clarke's case were confirmed by the paper trail unearthed by the 9/11 commission's staff.) But the public seems to have tired of the Vice President's act. According to a Fox News poll last week, Cheney has an approval rating of 35%—and my guess is that the Administration has got the worst of the Clarke exchange. Indeed, Clarke won the moment he walked into the 9/11 commission hearing and apologized to the victims' families for his failure to prevent the tragedy.

The apology illuminated the course the White House chose not to take. The President had already admitted to Bob Woodward that he "didn't feel that sense of urgency" about al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. If Bush had said last week that he was new to the job, that his interests were in other areas and that an attack on the scale of 9/11 was unimaginable, he would have received the benefit of the doubt. Instead, he chose cynicism and pettiness—a response that, in biblical times, brings down not only the wrath of prophets but an occasional plague of locusts and a pillar of fire as well.