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Watching the three-ring campain circus

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, March 25, 2004

While surfing through my cable channels, I happened upon an Animal Planet program featuring magicians with animals. It was educational to watch how these masters of illusion utilize the natural characteristics of their animals. For example, one magician took advantage of a pigeon’s sensitivity to the spotlight to make it appear that the bird kept turning away from him as though to ignore his conversation.

This year’s unprecedented early presidential television attack advertisements between the two apparent party nominees could have been politics as usual if the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks had not met this week. Since the nonpartisan commission’s findings could weaken or discredit the president’s strongest public perception, namely his handling and credibility regarding terror, the White House began an orchestrated effort to discredit its primary critic, former terror expert Richard Clarke. The White House attack dogs’ performance this week would make President Bush’s act, “The Amazing W,” a hit on the Vegas strip.

It is ironic that the Bush 2000 campaign portrayed Al Gore as a person who would say anything to get elected. It seems that for almost four years the Bush team has flip-flopped more than they are trying now to portray Senator John Kerry’s record. One can easily say that the Bush team’s parsing of words surpasses any definition of “is” that President Clinton made famous.

The Amazing W’s act is one based on slight of hand, sometimes showing its attack dogs like the press secretary, communications director and chief of staff who all criticized Clarke this week. At other times it lets its principals disappear, like its refusal to allow National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to publicly testify before the commission although in a single day she certainly made herself available to all the news networks to publicly refute Clarke’s claims.

The current White House is desperate to refute Clarke’s claim that Clinton had no higher priority than Al Qaeda while Bush thought Al Qaeda important but not urgent. In an effort instead discredit Clarke’s creditability, the vicious White House attack sneaks and cheats with the truth.

The White House press secretary publicly refuted that just a week after Sept. 11 Bush authorized a plan in invade Iraq. A day later the White House chief of staff reverses that assertion by confirming that they did have such a plan. The White House also claimed that since Clarke lost his cabinet-level status under Bush and did not receive a promotion at the Homeland Security Department, he was disgruntled. Then, the White House released Clarke’s resignation letter of Jan. 2003, in which they point that he did not write one disparaging word. A true professional serving the president, and in his case serving three Republican presidents and one Democratic president, only writes a classy, positive letter.

Most importantly, the White House contends that Clarke’s book and sworn testimony before the Sept. 11 commission contradicted his comments to reporters. The White House even went to the unusual step of lifting its restriction on a terror briefing that Clarke once gave to reporters “on background.” When a background briefing is given, reporters can quote a “White House advisor” or “senior administration official.” It is unprecedented for the White House to now publicly reveal Clarke’s name, a similar tactic to the illegal leak of the CIA officer’s name whose husband opposed the notion that Iraq bought nuclear materials from Africa. In fact, if a reporter had revealed Clarke’s name as the background speaker, it would have been considered a breech of professional ethics.

Clarke defends himself against the White House attack machine by saying that as a Special Assistant to the President, he was asked to make a case to the press regarding the Clinton and Bush policies and timelines. Clarke contends that he was asked to highlight the positives of the Bush policies and minimize the negatives. As a background source, he would never have personally used that information publicly, nor expected the White House to break the rules of journalistic ethics.

It is not unusual for an incoming administration to suspect everyone from the preceding staff, especially when the new president is of another political party. When Bill Clinton entered office, retail vendors who sold items like shirts and coffee cups were dismissed as “Republicans” even though some had become vendors during Jimmy Carter’s term. It is understandable and forgiving for the current Bush team, many of whom served under the first Bush presidency, to suspect holdover employees. The problem is that Clarke originally was a Reagan and Bush employee. It speaks volumes on how the current White House staff suspected anything affiliated with Clinton ranging from staff to serious Middle East policies to terror threats.

It is good that Clarke’s book and testimony surfaced now in the election cycle. It gives the voting public time to digest whether or not the conquest of Iraq was a distraction on the terror war. It gives all of us time to evaluate the Amazing W’s parsing of his words leading up to the invasion of Iraq … the “grave and gathering threat,” the “direct threat,” the “immediate” not “imminent” threat or the possible “mushroom cloud.”

The Amazing W may have already released the attack hounds against Clarke and Kerry, but Americans will remember how Bush scared the hell out of us last year during his “march to war,” Bush’s own account for the economy’s slow recovery. The big top is crowded. The three rings are active. Let the circus begin.

Gary Caruso, class of ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.