Robert Novak

Clinton briefly looked startled, then told Rumsfeld: "This is not 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, when you appeared before this committee and made many comments and presented many assurances that have, frankly, proven to be unfulfilled -- " That was too much for Rumsfeld, who interrupted: "Senator, I don't think that's true. I have never painted a rosy picture." He added that "you'd have a dickens of a time" finding "excessively optimistic" statements. "I understand this is tough stuff."

With no time left to speak, she put Rumsfeld's allegedly rosy statements in the record. "We didn't have a 'dickens of a time,'" a Clinton aide told this column. But Rumsfeld's characterization was apt. Of 13 examples mined by Clinton's staff, only four were among the "many" statements to the Armed Services Committee. They are no more triumphant than this 2004 comment: "I do believe we're on the right track."

Many of the supposedly false claims Clinton attributed to Rumsfeld are subject to interpretation. At the end of 2002, he said on CNN's "Larry King Live" in respect to Afghanistan: "The Taliban are gone. The al Qaeda are gone." In truth, the Taliban government had been dispersed and the al Qaeda guerrilla camps were demolished. Clinton omitted that Rumsfeld added: "It's not going to be a perfectly tidy place."

Going through Rumsfeld's voluminous utterances, he is not Little Mary Sunshine. "Difficult" is a favorite word. The quintessential Rumsfeld is shown in an April 7, 2004, press briefing: "Anyone who knows anything about history and looks back at the difficulties and the potholes in the road as you go through that series of difficult stages you have to go through, understands what's taking place." On June 23, 2005, he told the Armed Services Committee: "This is a tough business. It is difficult, it is dangerous, and it is not predictable."

Like a candidate brandishing embarrassing rhetoric from an opponent's past, Clinton aides were seeking and shaping partial Rumsfeld quotations to make sure their boss avoids being Liebermanized. The Clintons are famous for "the permanent campaign," and Hillary was pursuing it last week while forgoing serious debate over Iraq.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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