Berger Time

What goes on in the pants of a highly flappable official


Former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger has been caught with his pants on fire, and such is the gravity of the crisis that experts everywhere are solemnly avoiding the temptation toward instant position taking that occasionally mars the public discourse. But what the hell: I'm going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess as to what was in those documents Berger secreted close by his membrum virile: I'm predicting it was something that makes Sandy Berger look stupid.

That doesn't mean the missing classified documents—which reportedly include several drafts of an after-action report on anti-terrorism during the millennium celebrations, handwritten notes, index cards treating the Middle East peace talks, and a paper cutout of a turkey made from a tracing of Berger's own hand and marked "To Maddy, Hapy (sic) Thanksgiving, 1997"—will not provide more general embarrassment for the Clinton administration; or that they don't comprise materials necessary for a full rendering of the 9/11 Commission's report; or that they might not give a boost to the embattled Bush White House.

But it would be an error to view Berger as merely a garden variety apparatchik taking another dive to protect Bill Clinton's sagging legacy. First because Berger is an extraordinary apparatchik, and second because this misses Berger's particular self-regard, his confidence in his own institutional authority. With his bejowled, scowling mien, his sneer of lukewarm command threatening always to fade into a slow burn, Berger was the Gale Gordon of the Clinton years. The more indignities he endured, the more indignant he seemed. The more feckless and floundering the policy, the more sternly would Berger argue for its consistency and timeless morality.

You can get a sense of this Berger from his foreign policy prescriptions for some future Democratic president in the June issue of Foreign Affairs. The most distinctive passage in the article is one of those rhetorical dipsydoodles of which President Kennedy was a great devotee: "[O]ur natural allies are much more likely to be persuaded by the power of American arguments than by the argument of American power." Other than that, the recommendations are uncannily familiar: We must internationalize our conflicts. We must pursue the two-state Isrealestine solution once again. Why isn't Bush invading North Korea if he's so ba-a-ad? The only way to sort out our intelligence problems is by adding a new layer of management—an idea President Bush himself is more or less guaranteed to endorse. We must lead "across a broader agenda, in more places, and with a wider definition of our national interest."

If that sounds like a replay of Al Gore's half of the 2000 foreign policy debates, consider Berger's interview last week with Mark Bisnow, in which he concedes that the premises for invading Iraq were "not valid," but adds that "it would be a huge mistake for us to cut and run."

There you have the distinguishing features of Democratic foreign policy: It's the same as Republican foreign policy, only this time it's run by Democrats. So circumscribed is Berger's view, so timid are his boldest pronouncements, so little does he make an impression, that nobody even seemed to have realized he was working for John Kerry until he quit earlier today.

Faced with such harsh truths, wouldn't you be tempted to stuff your drawers with documents that might further lower your Q rating? In the Clinton administration, Berger endured his share of public humiliations, most notably the abortive Ohio town hall meeting designed to gin up support for 1998's offensive against Iraq, an event that (like the eventual offensive itself) ended in a fog of catcalling and pique. With the Democrats attempting to sell "competence" as an alternative to the Bush Administration's floundering, it's possible, even likely, that the pantsed papers did not reveal any gross incompetence or criminal neglect. It would be enough if they showed Democrats being precisely no better than the bumbling Republicans. When you're trying to build brand distinctions between two indistinguishable brands, such things matter.

It's important to note that the investigation shows every sign of being a low-wattage affair, and that the timing of the news is as suspicious as Berger's (and Kerry's) supporters claim. Joshua Micah Marshall notes that the question of whether Berger took home original documents (indicating he was seeking to purge the record) or copies (indicating he was merely careless and/or sneaky with homework) has become muddled. Unfortunately, it's muddled in a way that makes Berger look especially shady. According to John Solomon's original AP story, Berger attorney Lanny Breuer, "said Berger believed he was looking at copies of the classified documents, not originals." Translated from the indirect dialect, that means Berger did take home originals, and may or may not have done so innocently.

The tale of the other documents is also interesting: Somebody familiar with classification protocols can make the decision about whether a former national security advisor (presumably a person with a very high security clearance) should have to shoplift his own notes on national security. House rules or no, it's another indignity for a man who couldn't even do wrong right.