March 25, 2004

Dick Clarke’s big day:

Richard Clarke got his moment of fame yesterday when he testified before the 9-11 commission. It wasn’t pretty. Even though he was playing to a friendly audience and a stalwart group of Democratic commissioners, Clarke ran into the buzz-saw of his own words. He was kneecapped by three things: His resignation letter to President Bush, dated Jan. 30, 2003; the transcript of a background conference-call briefing conducted in August, 2002 for a handful of reporters, including Jim Angle of Fox News, and a solicitous e-mail sent from Clarke to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The three new bits of evidence make it clear that Clarke not only was defending the Bush administration against all comers as recently as 18 months ago, but also that he wasn’t dealing the I-told-you-so card he has been playing this week. In addition, Rep. Chris Shays (R., CT) released letters he sent to Rice the day after the president’s inauguration, warning that Clarke was a snarky, testy, useless briefer. Shays’ correspondence echoes other complaints that even though Clarke was a brilliant and experience guy, he could prove maddeningly vague when it came time to suggest actual action. Indeed, press reports indicate that his signal accomplishments in fighting the bad guys are actions that most people now view with scorn – including the bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory and the covert transport of bin Laden family members out of the U-S after September 11. (I’m not so sure about the latter “accomplishment,” which was reported today in a Boston Herald editorial.)

Sources at the commission also say Clarke was playing a double game. In 15 hours of secret testimony, he served as a neutral and helpful tour guide of the intelligence community. He didn’t shill either for any administration, and avoided political hackery. That vanished with the 60 Minutes interview Sunday, and continued through the Wednesday testimony.

Two moments stand out in that performance. First, when asked by former Sen. Slade Gorton whether September 11th could have been avoided if the Bush administration had granted Clarke’s every wish the moment he suggested programs or course of action, Clarke replied, and I quote in full: “No.”

Second, former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson tried repeatedly to get Clarke to reconcile his public and private statements before last Sunday with his comments since. “Which is true?” he asked. Clarke brushed that off as an “unfair question” and then proceeded to explain that in prior incarnations he was working at the pleasure of the president, and hence was gilding the lily for the benefit of reporters – and, one presumes, members of Congress. The “I was lying because it was my job” defense didn’t please Thompson – and it made Clarke look silly.

Indeed, only former Sen. Bob Kerrey tried to come to Clarke’s defense – and the best he could do was to excoriate Fox News for publicizing a transcript that caught Clarke in the act of saying things that directly contradict his current testimony. It seems odd that a commissioner eager to get at the truth would blast a media organization for publicizing information that could make a star witness look like a liar – unless, of course, the commissioner was embarrassed by the news. Besides, Fox did everything by the book in this case. Jim Angle sought and received permission to release the tape and transcript from the White House, which originally was responsible for putting the briefing “on background.”

By the way, Democrats, especially Rep. Tim Roemer, have been romancing Clarke for more than a year, perhaps recognizing that he has the pent-up rage of a man scorned. (This may explain the report, just out in Insight Magazine, that Clarke in this election cycle has contributed money only to Democrats.) The Bush team treated him with minimal respect, and demoted him from a position of relatively high prestige (getting to brief the president on counter-terrorism issues) to one of relative anonymity (the computer-virus czar). If he’s furious, one can understand why.

At any rate, I have no idea whether pique or conscience motivated his change of heart, but this week’s unveiling of the New Clarke has the hallmarks of a political set-up. Republicans were caught flat-footed, and Clarke got the benefit of some truly gushy press. It’s not over, either: There’s word that HBO is planning to run a made-for-cable film about Clarke’s book, with a September air date – in other words, just after the Republican convention and before the release of Bill Clinton’s book. Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, anyone?

I still find the whole thing somewhat mysterious. As I’ve said on-air, there’s something we don’t know in this tale – something important. I can’t put my finger on it, but the pieces in this puzzle just don’t fit. Clarke has built a reputation as a solid and sometimes visionary intel guy – someone who put security above politics, and who at least said the right things at key times. Now, however, he seems to have become a different guy and thrust himself into the maw of a presidential-election campaign. That’s a dangerous transition. I don’t care how good he is at office politics, he has now entered a different and far more treacherous world. If and when he becomes politically radioactive, his new friends will discard him like a dirty tissue.

But enough speculation. Now, Clarke will proceed on his book tour and I, as earlier promised, will try to finish reading his book so I can provide a proper review.

Michael Newdow and school prayer:

Michael Newdow, who wants the Supreme Court to rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance by declaring unconstitutional the words, “under God,” stopped by the studio Thursday. He’s an interesting guy. He clearly relishes his present legal combat. He likes the intellectual stimulation, the legal demands, the need for careful and detailed argument. He’s also an unusually good sport about taking on hostile hosts and callers. During a break, he brashly predicted that he would convert me to adopt his view. I told him, “no way.”  I smiled. He shrugged. And we trudged off to get fresh drinks – cola for him, coffee for me – before returning to the studio.

There’s some speculation that the court will dodge the “under God” issue by ruling that Newdow didn’t have “standing” – that is, a right to sue – because he wasn’t enrolled in the school where his daughter and her classmates routinely recited the pledge. I hope that isn’t the case, because Newdow’s complaint has the great merit of forcing the court to face the consequences of a long string of decisions about the “wall of separation between church and state.” In truth, Newdow isn’t on completely shaky legal ground – not if you take the Supremes’ recent forays into the realm of church-state relations. In fact, recent court decisions would lead you to conclude that the mere mention of God is the most dangerous possible thing one could say. 

But let’s set aside the constitutional arguments for now, and focus on something more basic: the merits of the phrase, “under God.”

America owes its greatness to the sentiment expressed in those two words. We owe our sensational accomplishments as a civilization to our unbroken faith in some fundamental truths: (1) God endowed all of us with inalienable rights and changeless moral rules; (2) We are all equal before the law and as God’s children; and (3) Government should not try to play God by stealing people’s liberty. These simple rules have made it possible to build a society that fosters trust, ambition and industry, and that protects the weak from the tyranny of the strong.

If you take away “under God” and embrace the view that our fundamental values come from the Constitution or judges or lawyers or legislators, you wipe away the safeguard that protects the meek and restrains the mean. You set loose a free-for-all in which only the strong thrive and survive. To quote the 15th Century British philosopher, you create a society in which “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

I’ll write more on the topic later, but let me close with a prediction. I think the court will reverse the Ninth Circuit opinion that declared “under God” unconstitutional – despite the fact that the justices will have to engage in some legal gymnastics to do so. It’s pretty obvious, reading recent decisions in the court, that justices have decided to abandon constitutional scholarship and troll wherever possible for precedents that will let them write decisions that gratify their political inclinations or satisfy the yearnings of their hearts. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently noted, for instance, that the justices might start drawing upon European jurisprudence in order to spiff up their decisions. Yeesh.

Yet, as Justice Holmes once noted: Justices also read election returns. The liberal four on the court – Justices Stevens, Souter, Breyer and Ginsberg – know that if they uphold the “under God” ban, Average America will go berserk. Villagers will appear instantly outside the courthouse, bearing ropes and torches.

The political fallout would be devastating. The public reaction could lead to Republican sweeps throughout the country, and produce a brief, but significant pro-conservative realignment on Capitol Hill. An electoral wipeout would give President Bush enough political clout to get his own picks named to the Supreme Court – a court that could, within the next four years, see as many as four retirements (Rehnquist, O’Connor, Stevens and Ginsberg). With the political stakes this high, it seems likely the court will reinstate the controversial phrase, and by a pretty solid majority. I know that seems cynical, but let’s see what happens when the court releases its opinion in June.

One final, utterly unrelated note: Starting next week, I’ll include links in my entries – as all good bloggers do. I must confess that I’m a moron when it comes to such matters, but will get some quick education, so this site will be good for more than just my opining.