George Will

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.''

Republicans should not press Majority Leader Bill Frist's implied threat, in his Senate speech Friday, that the differences between Clarke's sworn testimony to the Senate in 2002 and his sworn testimony to the Sept. 11 commission constitute perjury. Perjury being properly difficult to prove, Clarke, if charged, would be acquitted. Besides, it is time to stop trying to criminalize political differences, even those flavored, as in Clarke's case, by anger, malice, opportunism and meretriciousness.

And Republicans should stop saying that the one continuity from the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, through the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, to 9/11 is Clarke, so he must somehow be to blame. That argument is a cousin of Clarke's apology.

When he apologizes for his and the government's ``failure'' (he means its failure to listen to him, and his failure to make it listen), the implied principle is freighted with future acrimony. The principle is that when government efforts to protect public safety are proved to be imperfect, we should be able to identify measures that could have and -- this is not the same thing -- should have been taken.

That principle is especially dubious after the Madrid bombings. They were perpetrated without suicides, and using two ubiquitous items -- backpacks and cell phones. Donald Rumsfeld, providing adult supervision during the Clarke kerfuffle, keeps saying something we will have occasion to remember: More attacks are coming because we are still far from draining the social swamps where attackers breed.

Former Sen. Slade Gorton, a member of the Sept. 11 commission, asked Clarke whether there was ``the remotest chance'' that acceptance by the Bush administration of all the recommendations Clarke made four days after President Bush took office would have prevented Sept. 11. Clarke said: ``No.'' So what makes Clarke strident -- his self-description -- is his belief that the Iraq War was a tragic blunder, arising from the president's monomania about Saddam and draining resources from the war on terror.

Intelligent people can and do make that argument. However, by day eight Clarke's version of it was puerile: But for the Iraq War, Sept. 11 might have caused the Islamic masses to say ``maybe we've gone too far.''

In 1862, as his policy toward slavery evolved, Lincoln got from the Library of Congress ``A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' in which Stowe provided documentation on which her novel had been based. It is unlikely that 10 years from now the president will be consulting Clarke's book, or Clarke.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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