WASHINGTON -- ``So,'' Lincoln supposedly said to the White House visitor, ``you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.'' Harriet Beecher Stowe's ``Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' published in 1852, quickly sold 300,000 copies -- equivalent to 3 million today -- and remains the only book to become an American history-shaping political event.
When the dust settles from the eight days that shook the world of Washington -- spanning Richard Clarke's appearance two Sundays ago on ``60 Minutes'' to his appearance last Sunday on ``Meet the Press'' -- no one will say of his ``Against All Enemies'' what Longfellow said of Stowe's novel: ``Never was there such a literary coup de main as this.'' Too much of the controversy about Clarke's book -- and testimony and interviews -- concerns adjectives.
Combating terrorism was only ``important'' to the Bush administration (by the eighth day Clarke was calling the Bush administration ``lackadaisical'' about terrorism), whereas for the Clinton administration it was ``urgent'' -- ``no higher a priority.'' Except when it wasn't. When Clarke recommended ``a series of rolling attacks'' against al Qaeda's ``infrastructure in Afghanistan,'' his recommendation was rejected. But Clarke says ``to be fair'' we should understand that the Clinton administration decided it had higher priorities -- the Balkans, the Middle East peace process.
By the eighth day Clarke was telling Tim Russert that the difference is that Clinton did ``something'' whereas Bush did ``nothing.'' Nothing except, among other things, authorizing a quadrupling of spending for covert action against al Qaeda.
Clarke's apology to the American people, delivered to the Sept. 11 commission, should be considered in the context of the book, the publication of which was timed to coincide with his testimony. When, presuming to speak for the entire government, he said ``we tried hard,'' he actually must have been using the royal plural, because the gravamen of his book is that only he was trying hard. Indeed, parts of Clarke's memoir call to mind Finley Peter Dunne's jest that Teddy Roosevelt's memoir of the Cuban expedition should have been titled ``Alone in Cuba.''
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