Media

Mr. President: Hands Off Clarke

You're getting nowhere with this campaign

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Dear President Bush,

I have no idea whether you're really planning to out Richard Clarke as, well, a confirmed bachelor who is clean and fastidious and enjoys gardening. But if this attack is half as successful as the ones your flunkies have managed over the past week and a half, I'm going to conclude that you, not Clarke, are the one who's secretly working for the Kerry campaign.

Now an open mind requires me to consider the possibility that you are executing a long-term master plan, that today's reversal on Condoleezza Rice's testimony to the 9/11 Commission was really planned long ago, to gin up the battle with Clarke and allow Rice to deliver a final blow to his credibility. The problem with this theory is that there's no guarantee Rice will succeed, and her warmup performance with Ed Bradley the other night—during which she claimed the 9/11 Commission is not supposed to be investigating 9/11 and, when asked about Clarke's celebrated apology to that panel, replied with what sounded a lot like "I'm sorry you feel that way"—doesn't inspire much confidence in her ability to win hearts and minds. More to the point is something you may have forgotten over the last few days: You're not running against Richard Clarke; you're running against John Kerry.

I'm not speaking out of fussy objections to political mudslinging. Clarke knew what he was getting into. If you had ready means to destroy his reputation, it would be your prerogative, more or less, to do so. The problem isn't that you're throwing punches at Clarke. It's that you're looking like Trevor Berbick. Clarke has done a pretty impressive job of extending his Ollie North moment before the panel; fighting him is a losing game.

You may or may not be feeling the effects of this fight. A Newsweek poll has your credibility on terrorism dropping fast; a CNN poll has you gaining on Kerry. But think about the contrast: Kerry does snowboarding photo-ops while Bush tries to destroy a former employee.

Here is the only thing you or any other Republican holding office should have to say about this situation: "While we respectfully disagree with his view on the Iraq war, we continue to be appreciative of Dick Clarke's years of service and are thankful to have men of such caliber serving us in the war on terrorism." Say it in the mirror a few times until it doesn't stick in your throat. You've got plenty of media lapdogs out there who can keep up the pressure on Clarke, should you continue to feel that's necessary. But the only thing you or any other Republican official should be seen doing right now is taking the so-called high road.

I know it doesn't seem fair that a disgruntled former employee can badmouth you in public while you have to take it. And it probably isn't fair. I have no trouble putting the worst possible interpretation on Clarke's motives: Clearly, he's working out some kind of snub he feels he received while in your service. He's got a book he's trying to peddle (though I believe self-interest doesn't prevent anybody from delivering a decent service; you've shown you're not interested in free market economics but you should grasp this basic Smithian idea). He downplays (or allows the press to downplay) the failings of the Clinton administration and focuses on the failings of your administration.

Guess what? None of that matters. Weren't you paying attention when all those former Clinton administration people (I'm not sure anymore, but it seems like it was all of them) did the exact same thing to their former boss? The tearing down of reputations is a business best left to us, the smallfries. I've never known any journalist who lost an opportunity to take a public swipe at whatever publication he or she worked at last, and I'd guess it's not much different in your line of work. Like Jesus—one of your faves, I've been told—you can only win this fight by not hitting back.

You're probably thinking I don't have your best interests at heart, and indeed, I don't. I'm happy to see any President on the defensive, and I'm not as uncomfortable with open and accountable government as many of my colleagues seem to be. Call me an old softy, but I too was moved by the spectacle of somebody from the government finally issuing a straightforward apology for September 11, and I'm perplexed that nobody who's still on the payroll has been able to follow suit. All that having been said, I'd take another four years of you over five minutes of John Kerry; and it's dismaying to see the way your petty campaign against your former terrorism czar is feeding the beast. Nobody wants a president who carries on like a bitch.

Because ultimately, you may manage to land a few punches on Clarke, but where will that leave you? As Jeff Taylor noted yesterday, Clarke is just the representative for all the anti-terror people who thought invading Iraq was a bad idea. Clarke may be the biggest of them, but there are plenty more where he came from. If you honestly believe they were wrong, prove them wrong. Otherwise, it may be time for John Kerry to take up X-treme skateboarding.

Sincerely,
Tim Cavanaugh