WASHINGTON -- The New York Times swooned. Newsweek put it on its cover. Commentators everywhere expressed sorrowful dismay that Bush had not done it long ago.
Indeed, one has to admire it -- the most cynical and brilliantly delivered apology in recent memory: Richard Clarke using the nationally televised Sept. 11 commission hearings to address the families of the victims. ``Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you.''
Many were moved. I was not. For two reasons. First, the climactic confession ``I failed you'' -- the one that packed the emotional punch -- was entirely disingenuous. Clarke did the mea culpa then spent the next 2 1/2 hours of testimony -- as he did on every talk show known to man and in the 300 pages of his book -- demonstrating how everyone else except Richard Clarke had failed. And they failed because the stubborn, ignorant, ideologically blinkered, poll-driven knaves and fools he had been heroically fighting against in government would not listen to him.
Message: They failed you.
Second, by blaming the government for the deaths of their loved ones, Clarke deftly endorsed the grotesque moral inversion by which those who died on Sept. 11 are victims of ... George Bush. This is about as morally obscene as the implication (made by, among others, the irrepressible Howard Dean) that those who died in the Madrid bombings were also victims of George Bush.
This is false. They were all victims of al Qaeda and al Qaeda alone.
Clinton did not apologize for Oklahoma City. Reagan did not apologize for the Beirut bombing. FDR did not apologize for Pearl Harbor. George Bush owes no apology. If an apology is owed, it is owed to the entire country and not just the families, and it is owed by the murderers who planned and carried out Sept. 11.
The most telling remark Clarke made in the entire hearing was one that did not make the cover of Newsweek.
SEN. SLADE GORTON: ``Assuming that the recommendations that you made on January 25th of 2001 ... had all been adopted say on January 26th, year 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?"
Thus, doing everything demanded by the most hawkish, most prescient, most brilliant, most heroic, most swaggering antiterrorism chief in American history -- i.e. Clarke, in his own mind -- would not have prevented Sept. 11. Why then should the administration apologize?
What exactly was the failure? What was Bush supposed to do in order to prevent Sept. 11? Invade Afghanistan? Clarke has expressed outrage at Bush's pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. So: Bush deserves excoriation for pre-emptively invading Iraq based on massive, universally accepted intelligence of its weapons, to say nothing of its hostility and virulence; and simultaneously, Bush deserves excoriation for not pre-emptively attacking Afghanistan on the basis of ... what? Increased terrorist chatter in the summer of 2001?
At the hearing, Clarke was particularly brilliant in playing to the gallery, mainly to the families in the gallery. By some strange cultural transmutation, the families -- or more accurately, a small number of politically active families -- have claimed, and been ceded, special status in the war on terrorism.
Surely they deserve our sympathy and our care. And they have received an extraordinary, indeed unprecedented, outpouring of both from the public and from the government. But some families go much further, and claim the moral high ground in judging the war on terror and how it is to be waged.
On what grounds? Did the Pearl Harbor families enjoy special status in critiquing FDR's decisions in World War II? The Oklahoma City families were denied any special status at all -- they never even got compensation of the sort the Sept. 11 families received.
Just this week the widow of Daniel Pearl was denied a claim for similar government compensation, on the grounds that, while Pearl was surely a victim of the war on terror -- and, in fact, was engaged in it by pursuing the truth about those waging war against us -- he happened to die on a date other than Sept. 11.
Clarke's clever pseudo-apology -- we failed, meaning, they failed -- played perfectly to the families in the gallery, who applauded and warmly embraced the very man who for 12 years was the U.S. government official most responsible for preventing a Sept. 11. A neat trick.