Jason Reed  /  Reuters file
By MSNBC contributor
updated 3/31/2004 1:02:23 PM ET 2004-03-31T18:02:23

Correction: In an earlier version of this column, the writer questioned a quote attributed to President Bush, saying that the quote — that the president is "fighting the terrorists in Iraq so that we don't have to fight them in the streets of America” — did not appear in a Nexis search. However, several readers found the quote using other search engines.

Anyone picking up Richard Clarke’s book "Against All Enemies" who hopes for a strict, dry bureaucratic tome on counter-terror policy will be disappointed. Yes, the book has its share of cumbersome phrases like Critical Infrastructure Protection Group and Strategic Information and Operations Center.

But Clarke talks beyond the wonks. He heads straight for the politicos. He gets real juicy — liberally taking potshots at President Bush while heaping praise on President Clinton. And he makes pop political references, which some might find odd for a counterterrorism czar.

In short, Clarke’s book is a Clinton defenders’ delight. Some examples:

  • "I was angrier, almost incredulous, that the bitterness of Clinton's enemies knew no bounds, that they intended to hurt not just Clinton but the country by turning the President's personal problem into a global public circus for their own political ends. Now I feared that the timing of the President's interrogation about the scandal, August 17, would get in the way of our hitting the al Qaeda meeting. It did not. Clinton made clear that we were to give him our best national security advice, without regard to his personal problems." (p. 185)
  • "Our response to two deadly terrorist attacks was an attempt to wipe out al Qaeda leadership, yet it quickly became grist for the right-wing talk radio mill and part of the Get Clinton campaign." (p. 189
  • " … the President’s intent was very clear: kill bin Laden. I believe that those in CIA who claim the authorizations were insufficient or unclear are throwing up that claim as an excuse to cover the fact that they were pathetically unable to accomplish the mission." (p. 204)

Well, then. (For those who might dispute Clarke’s reading of history, here’s what Tom DeLay said March 23: "What's interesting about this whole story is that six Americans died at the first World Trade Center bombing, 19 peacemakers at the Khobar Towers, 224 at the African Embassy bombings, and 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole. For eight years under Richard Clarke as the terrorism czar, Americans were murdered by terrorism and nothing was done. And now we are to believe that the Bush Administration has a legacy of failure because in seven months they didn't turn around eight years of doing nothing.")

On the contrary, how does Clarke handle President Bush? Check out this left-handed compliment: "From the interactions I did have with Bush, it was clear that the critique of him as a dumb, lazy rich kid were somewhat off the mark." Gee, how kind. Clarke also writes that the President "looked for the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem." (p. 243)

Then Clarke offers this: "In the end, what was unique about George Bush's reaction to terrorism was his selection as an object lesson for potential state sponsors of terrorism, not a country that had been engaging in anti-U.S. terrorism but one that had not been, Iraq. It is hard to imagine another President making that choice." (p. 244)

Video: Clarke rips White House Clarke's affections
And here the contrast in Clarke’s affections become crystal clear: "Early on we were told that ‘the President [Bush] is not a big reader’ and goes to bed by 10:00. Clinton, by contrast, would be plowing through an inbox filled with staff memos while watching cable television news well after midnight." (p. 243)

Ah, reading. Blissful, sweet reading. The true presidential ironman competition. Clarke loves Bill Clinton’s reading skills. Earlier in the book, page 162, he writes, "Clinton’s reading habits had always amazed me. He was an eclectic reader, who apparently stayed up very late almost every night devouring a book."

When he’s not being amazed by superhuman reading talent, Clarke fancies himself to be a political strategist — putting himself in league with Karl Rove. "From within the White House," he writes on page 242, "a decision had been made that in the 2002 congressional elections and in the 2004 re-election, the Republicans would wrap themselves in the flag, saying a vote for them was a vote against the terrorists. 'Run on the war' was the direction in 2002. Then Rove meant the War on Terror, but they also had in mind another way that they would gin up."

Rove makes another cameo appearance on page 186: "Ironically, Clinton was blamed for a 'Wag the Dog' strategy in 1998 dealing with the real threat from al Qaeda but no one labeled Bush's 2003 war on Iraq as a 'Wag the Dog' move even though the 'crisis' was manufactured and Bush political advisor Karl Rove was telling Republicans to 'run on the war.'"

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At this point, why not just criticize President Bush’s campaign? Sure enough, Clarke dutifully does so: "President Bush is telling fund-raisers, illogically, that he deserves money for his re-election because he is 'fighting the terrorists in Iraq so that we don't have to fight them in the streets of America.' He never points out that our being in Iraq does nothing to prevent terrorists from coming to America, but does divert funds from addressing our domestic vulnerabilities and does make terrorist recruitment easier. Nonetheless, the Las Vegas oddsmakers and Washington pundits think that Bush will easily be re-elected." (p. 289)

Clarke must be the nation’s first counterterror expert to cite Vegas bookies in his work.

But, wait. Is he really the nation's top dog on counterterror or not? During his March 24 testimony to the 9/11 Commission, Clarke said his "actual title was national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism. And the press, thinking that that title was too long and not sexy enough, immediately turned it into terrorism czar. If you look at the presidential decision directive in 1998 that created this position, it is replete with what the national coordinator cannot do and what resources the national coordinator would not have. It was not a counterterrorism czar."

It wasn’t? So much for the inside flap of Clarke’s book. That’s where you’ll find this first sentence: "No one has more authority to make that claim [about the Bush administration squandering the opportunity to eliminate Al Qaeda] than Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush."

Huh? Now I’m thoroughly confused. I just wish I were as skilled a reader as Bill Clinton.

Howard Mortman is a producer for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."


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