Who wants to step up and apologize

Posted: Apr 16, 2004 12:00 AM

The president was asked at least four times at his press conference whether he wanted to take the opportunity to apologize for the 9-11 attacks. It was the press corps in full baying mode .

 Apologies and blame are the themes of the week. On apologies, let's be aware that many are pure theater. Richard Clarke's recent apology for having failed to prevent 9-11 is Exhibit A. The import of the rest of Clarke's testimony was that he was the lone hero pushing for action who was ignored by his less farsighted colleagues. It was quite a performance. He apologized, but at the same time made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, he was the only one with nothing to apologize for.

 President Clinton was good at apologizing -- but only for things that others had done, not for his own wrongdoing. He apologized, on behalf of the United States, for having supported dictators during the Cold War, for slavery and for racism. He never expressed contrition for failing to handle the terrorist threat, being snookered by the North Koreans, coddling Yasser Arafat or his many other missteps.

 One questioner at the press conference allowed as how it was the word around town that the Bush administration "never admits a mistake." Well, this may have some truth to it. But, ahem, look who's talking! These are the same folks who brought you the story of 170,000 precious artifacts looted from the Iraqi National Museum under the noses of U.S. Marines. It turned out there were only about a dozen. Oops.

 These are the people who warned us of the terrible Afghan winter and warned that our troops would face the same fate as those of the Soviet Union and Great Britain. These are the same people who declared that the Afghanistan campaign, three weeks on, had become a Vietnam-style quagmire. It was on the front page of The New York Times.

 These are the also the people who brought you Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. Kelley is the former star foreign correspondent for USA Today who was recently fired for fabricating stories.

 Well, everybody makes mistakes, but members of the press are particularly arrogant and unwilling to confront them. The New York Times has finally appointed an ombudsman, but only in the teeth of strenuous objections from the staff.

 Regarding blame, it is quite amazing to see how the press and the Democrats have succeeded, with a little help from a maladroit White House, in making the issue what Bush failed to do in the less than eight months he held office before 9-11. We can stipulate that he ought to have moved faster. But for the past few weeks, you could page through a newspaper or turn on the TV and hardly even guess that there was a Democratic administration in power for the eight years before 2000.

 That's why it was bracing when Attorney General John Ashcroft reminded the 9-11 commission that Jamie Gorelick, a member of the commission who served in the Clinton Justice Department, had a key role in erecting one of the barriers that made Sept. 11 more likely. Gorelick, deputy attorney general, issued regulations that went "beyond what the law demands" to avoid an "unwarranted appearance" problem. In effect, these regulations significantly strengthened the "wall" between the investigative and prosecutorial arms of the government, forbidding them to speak to each other.

 While we're assigning blame, it would be nice to hear a bit more about the role of political correctness. In 1997, the FBI reportedly wanted to shut down the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim "charity" that was funneling money to terrorists. (It was shut down in 2001.)The Clinton administration demurred, according to U.S. News and World Report, because "they didn't want to come off as Muslim bashers."

 In 2002, the Bush Justice Department announced that some visitors to the United States would be fingerprinted and photographed upon entry. Those hailing from countries with ties to terrorists would be asked to comply. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois was quick off the mark: "It's going to reach a tipping point if we're not careful ... and end up sacrificing many of the values of our country." And James Zogby of the Arab American Institute declared, "The message it sends is that we're becoming like the Soviet Union ..."

 A modest proposal: No more non-apology apologies and no more demands for others to apologize. We are all guilty. But the only way to judge whether someone has learned the lessons of his mistakes is how he conducts himself thereafter. If we were truly to learn the lessons of 9-11, we would jettison political correctness, house clean the intelligence agencies, get serious about immigration and send more troops to Iraq. Let's keep our eye on the ball.