Jewish World Review April 11, 2004 / 21 Nissan 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Does bestsellerdom beat the No. 2 job Clarke wanted in Homeland Security? | Different cultures have different ways of dealing with failure. In a different era, a Prussian officer who had disgraced himself could safely be left alone in a room with a Luger on the desk. He would know what to do.

The Japanese cultivated the elaborate rite of hara-kiri.

A Frenchman would join the Foreign Legion.

An English aristocrat would resign his Cabinet post, spend the next 20 years doing charity work, then receive a knighthood when all was forgiven.

A Benedict Arnold would be given a commission and pension by His Britannic Majesty, but become a synonym for traitor in the American language, as in "a Benedict Arnold."

But times and cultures change.

The military code decrees that a commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do, but the unstated corporate code holds that a CEO who fails on a sufficiently large scale gets his lucrative contract paid off, leaves with a huge bonus and is courted by other companies.

As for American civil servants who fail on an historic scale, they resign in a huff, write a best-selling memoir damning those they used to praise, and do a star turn before an investigating commission. It helps if it's an election year and the opposition is looking for campaign fodder.

See the case of best-selling author Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism chief who's made a very good thing of having failed to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history. In a reversal of the old saying, he's proved that nothing succeeds like failure.

As the hearings before the 9/11 Commission turn into one more election-year squabble, a great deal of attention will be focused on the testimony of the competing stars, Dick Clarke vs. Condi Rice.

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The press will search for whatever inconsistencies can be found in their respective statements before and after 9/11. And surely some will be. Memory is the most creative of human functions, and each witness will remember different versions of the same, runaway train of events.

It happens after every great disaster: Blame must be placed. Scapegoats must be found. See the first, wartime investigation of Pearl Harbor, which excoriated Admiral Kimmel and General Short, the commanders on the scene, and left the higher-ups unscathed. Only decades and investigations later would they be rehabilitated.

As the 9/11 Commission becomes a political arena, each side strives to present its own version of how that disaster came about. The result is supposed to be a final report unclouded by partisan prejudices. Good luck. This is, after all, a human endeavor.

The commission itself was never a nonpartisan operation but more of a bipartisan one. And where there are two parties, there will be partisanship.

Ostensibly the commission is supposed to produce an objective history, an oxymoron so long as historians are human.

The commission is also supposed to reach an impartial verdict, but that ideal doesn't always survive the adversarial process. The most realistic guide to these proceedings isn't any work of history or law but Dilbert, for what we have here is a game of office politics raised to the level of national security. Or rather national insecurity.

If there is anyone who has emerged as a master of office politics at this high level, it is Richard Clarke. The greater his failure, the higher he rises. He has turned catastrophe into stardom.

Which Richard Clarke are we supposed to believe - the one who lavishly praised the administration when he was part of it, or the one who damns it now that he's left it? Those earlier statements, he assures us, were just politics. And what are his latter assertions, just merchandising?

The only sure thing about Richard Clarke throughout his career is that he's always been loyal - to his own interests.

Condi Rice is no slouch at this game, either. You don't get to be national security adviser without a certain talent for cleaning up the blood on the office floor and emerging with every memo and hair in place. See Kissinger, Henry. The subtext of this whole exercise is careerism.

In the end, after both Dick Clarke and Condi Rice have had their say, some of us are left with the question we began with: Can anyone imagine Richard Clarke making these accusations if he'd gotten that No. 2 job he wanted in Homeland Security?

Instead, he had to settle for best-sellerdom.

As the Brits say, well-played.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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