The Great Condi-Clarke Match 

Week Two: Karl Rove’s bad advice

Thursday, Apr 1 2004

By Tuesday morning, the Bushies found themselves with no choice except to reluctantly clamber out of the political spider hole in which they had so furiously entrenched themselves. Tattered, torn and hemorrhaging, they have surrendered Condi Rice — under oath — to a coming public session of the 9/11 Commission. And shuffling right behind her, George Bush and Dick Cheney will also now deign to meet with the full 10-member commission (in private), and not with just its chair and vice chair as they had been demanding.

By last weekend, the Bush face-saving retreat was a political inevitability, even though the White House senselessly resisted for another 48 hours. But as Bush lost even hard-line commission member John Lehman, former Reagan Navy secretary, and as 53 percent of those polled by CNN said they thought the administration was hiding something, it was only a matter of when, not if, the White House would buckle. The great sucking sound everyone heard was the Bush-Cheney campaign charter quickly losing altitude on the issue of national security.

So begins Week Two of the great Condi-Clarke confrontation, a showdown that never had to happen at all. A smarter, defter White House team would have shut this whole affair down within a single news cycle, and by now we’d all be back to betting just when John Kerry would self-destruct instead of wagering on whether Bush will ever re-emerge from the Dick Clarke quagmire.

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When you compare Clarke’s version of history with the official take knitted by the White House, I’m afraid to say there isn’t a whole lot of difference. It’s mostly a matter of interpretation and emphasis.

All the White House had to do last week was say that Dick Clarke — who had been named crisis manager the morning of September 11 — was a great guy, a loyal public servant, that he has, indeed, a few policy differences with the president, but his critique enriches the public debate. Thank you very much and, gosh, all of us, like our old friend Dickie, are sorry we didn’t better anticipate al Qaeda’s attacks.

Instead, the Republican attack machine went on tilt. The always-execrable Dick Cheney went so low as to use the Limbaugh show as a venue to discredit Clarke. Majority Leader Bill Frist made an ass out of himself on the Senate floor, hysterically calling for Clarke to be busted for perjury (though he admitted he had not read his book). The White House vehemently denied the decisive post-9/11 meeting between Rice and Clarke (and later had to recant). Even sweet Laura Bush took time off from reading to toddlers to chuck a few verbal bricks at Clarke. And then there was Condi — literally everywhere except where she was supposed to be. On every morning network show, and finally on 60 Minutes, very publicly arguing why, as much as she’d love to, she just couldn’t testify in public.

The vaunted and feared Bush political team took the field as rank amateurs, bungling and booting the defense, inflating the already aggressive and articulate Dick Clarke into an all-consuming media figure who vacuumed all the oxygen right out of the national political theater and left the president desperately gasping.

No surprise to me, frankly. I have argued from the onset that the Bush administration are better clowns than they are despots. That their real specialty is much more short-term greed and crass political opportunism than it is long-term imperial vision, strategic thinking and global domination.

They rewarded their immediate friends, sycophants and donor constituencies with bountiful tax breaks but never stopped to worry about how record-busting deficits would affect their own political fortunes — let alone America’s welfare — a couple years down the road.

They thrilled to their own rhetoric about taking on the entire Axis of Evil, and then, when showtime arrived, they demonstrated that — far short of taking over the world — they couldn’t as much as manage rush-hour traffic in Baghdad.

They knowingly exaggerated any direct threat posed by Saddam Hussein but, apparently, never figured out what would happen when those fibs would inevitably be uncovered.

Only terrified Democrats, the glorious party of Dukakis, Lieberman and Al “No Controlling Legal Authority” Gore, could take a lackluster troll like Karl Rove and inflate him into some sort of all-knowing and forbidding Evil Genius. (As if it took a rocket scientist to figure out how to beat the Democrats!)


I met Karl Rove back in 1992 during Poppy Bush’s failed re-election campaign and had a long talk with him in his Austin office (this was before you had to cough up a $1,000 political donation to the Bush family to get in his door). I came away thinking that Rove was just one more dull-eyed Republican hack whose only real talent was to relentlessly stick to a simplistic script of wedge politics.

Doggedness and dogmatism, rather than brilliance and cunning, are much better descriptors of the current team occupying the White House.

As last Sunday’s Knight-Ridder lead piece profiling the administration put it, “Accounts from insiders in the Bush White House describe a tightly controlled, top-down organization that pushes a predetermined agenda, shuns dissenting views and discourages open debate.” That’s the Karl Rove I know.

He, much more than Richard Clarke, is the architect of this week’s White House debacle. He’s doing a much better job of balling up the Bush White House than I can ever imagine Candidate Kerry doing. Keep it up, Karl.

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