Berger get fried

Diana West

7/26/2004 12:00:00 AM - Diana West

A couple of weeks ago, after I mentioned John Kerry had chosen a foreign policy novice for a running mate, my e-mail basket filled up with responses: When it comes to world affairs, I was told, John Edwards is more experienced, or at least no more inexperienced, than George W. Bush was when he first ran for president. So there.

Comparing the international expertise of Bush, circa 2000, and Edwards, circa 2004, is an unenlightening exercise if only because of what has happened in between: Sept. 11. Which is what I wrote back. Since New York and Washington came under attack, all leadership decisions must deliberately reflect our dangerous times: Tapping a foreign-affairs flyweight for the vice presidency in the middle of a long-haul war does not. In fact, I would say it reveals a cavalier disregard for national security.

But if inexperience on the Kerry team is a liability, it turns out experience in foreign affairs is no bargain, either. I'm thinking, foremost, of Sandy Berger, the former National Security Advisor to Bill Clinton who has been a foreign policy adviser to the Kerry campaign. Berger has plenty of experience. In fact, maybe too much. After news broke that the former Clinton adviser is the subject of a federal criminal investigation into the removal of highly classified documents from the National Archives in a) his leather portfolio b) his jacket c) his pants and d) very possibly his socks, Berger parted company from the Kerry campaign. Or vice versa.

Clearly, this is not the sort of experience a presidential candidate prizes in a campaign adviser, although at least one ex-president has already pronounced the whole affair hilarious. "We were all laughing about it," Bill Clinton told the Denver Post, reminiscing about his former NSC chief's messy desk. Clinton added he'd known about this "non-story" -- the non-story that Berger's mishandling of top-secret terror documents was under investigation -- for several months. (Did Kerry? When asked, the Democratic presidential candidate told NBC's Tom Brokaw, "I didn't have a clue, not a clue.")

 To be sure, there is something pretty uproarious in the thought of Berger stuffing stacks of paper into his jacket, pants and very possibly his socks. Strip away the clothes, though, and the laughter dies. As Berger tells it, he "inadvertently" left the archives building with secret documents -- reportedly, drafts of a critique of the Clinton administration's response to the millennium terrorist threat -- and later "accidentally" threw them away. Was Berger trying to eliminate a blot on the Clinton-Berger escutcheon? Trolling for information useful to the Kerry campaign? Or was he making, as he says, "an honest mistake"? Congress has decided to find out. Meanwhile, it's a safe bet Berger won't be vetting Kerry policy on national security breeches anytime soon.

Plenty of old Democratic hands can help make an honest headline for the Kerry campaign, among them Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Wesley Clarke and Ted Kennedy (who can make a headline, anyway). Although not lately. Instead, we get the story of former ambassador Joe Wilson, another Kerry foreign policy adviser. After achieving fame and media-darlinghood last year by charging that President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address claim -- that British intelligence reported that Iraq sought uranium in Africa -- was false, Wilson campaigned for John Kerry in at least six states on the Bush-Lied platform, even denouncing the vice president as "a lying son of a bitch" at one Kerry event. This author of "The Politics of Truth" (Carroll & Graf) also launched a Web site called RestoreHonesty.com, which both endorses the Kerry campaign and is (still) endorsed by the Kerry campaign.

Too bad for Wilson -- and Kerry -- that bombshell investigations in both the United States and Britain have blown Wilson's reputation as a one-man truth squad to smithereens. In short, Wilson has been exposed as a fraud, even as British intelligence claims (and, by extension, the president's statement on Iraq and uranium) have been confirmed. Will Kerry distance himself from Wilson as he has distanced himself from Berger?

Better not ask Kerry surrogate and national campaign co-chairman Max Cleland. Just this week, the former senator was still pushing nasty Wilsonian baby-talk as Democratic wisdom: President Bush "flat-out lied" on Iraq, he told reporters, and went to war "because he concluded his daddy was a failed president (because) he did not take out Saddam Hussein." Cleland's conclusion? Bush is "Mr. Macho Man." Candidate Kerry, he added, agrees with this psychoanalysis of foreign affairs.

Does he? I would love to hear the answer. Meanwhile, it's becoming clear that with experience like this, who needs hard knocks.