They will be playing the videotape of former terrorism czar’s Richard Clarke’s appearance before the commission investigating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in media training sessions for years, if not decades, to come. It will be that long before they come up with a better example of grace under pressure.
As a nation, we have become so accustomed to spinning, to dissembling, to black-is-white and up-is-downism that it took a while, watching Clarke respond to questions from friend and foe before you realized why it seemed so different from anything we had seen before—or at least, recently. Here was a man completely uninterested in covering his ass, playing politics, or pushing a partisan agenda. Here was a man who took his responsibility as a public servant—a servant of the people—seriously, and whose only agenda was the truth.
It was humbling to watch.
His performance on 60 Minutes set the tone. Says Morri Berman, “Leslie Stahl credentialed him very well, by talking about the fact that he had served Reagan, Bush, and Clinton before working with the current administration. And he gave himself even more credibility by acknowledging that he deserved some of the blame for the terror attacks.”
But the Bush administration bore the brunt of his criticism. “I blame the entire Bush leadership for continuing to work on the Cold War issues when they came back in power in 2001,” he told Stahl. “It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier. They came back, they wanted to work on the same issues right away—Iraq, Star Wars—not the new issues, the new threats that had developed over the preceding eight years.”
“There was absolutely no equivocation in anything Clarke said, no hesitation,” says Berman. “There were no long pauses, he never had to hesitate. He knew what he wanted to say. He believed in what he was saying.”
Matt Reid, a leader of the public affairs practice at Waggener Edstrom, agrees. “Two points continue to come through in all the coverage of this,” he says. “His ability to stay on message and focus the coverage on those two issues—that the administration did not heed the warnings before the attacks and that it turned its attention immediately to Iraq in the aftermath—was impressive.”
At one point, Stahl asked whether there was any link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda (something the White House had implied strongly in the run up to the invasion). Clarke was emphatic: “No. There’s absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda. Ever.”
Overall, Andy Gillman, who heads media training specialist CommCore, agrees with the consensus. “Clarke came across as forceful, straightforward, and passionate,” he says. Says Jere Sullivan, executive vice president of Edelman and a crisis and public affairs counselor, “He really had his talking points down and he was extremely well prepared.”
“Contrast that to [administration representative] Steven Hadley. He started a lot of his sentences with ‘I believe’ or ‘it’s my understanding.’ Even his denials had qualifiers.”
In one particular instance, it became apparent that Hadley was either lying or had been hung out to dry by whoever briefed him. Stahl confronted Hadley with Clarke’s recollection of a conversation during which the president asked him to look for evidence that Iraq had played a role in the attacks. Hadley tried to imply that Clarke was making it up: “We cannot find evidence that this conversation between Mr. Clarke and the President ever occurred.”
But Stahl interrupted. “We have done our own work on that ourselves and we have two sources who tell us independently of Dick Clarke that there was this encounter,” she told him. “One of them was an actual witness.” Hadley’s response: “Look, the—I—I stand on what I said.”
Berman believes it was a mistake to select Hadley to respond to Clarke’s allegations. For one thing, sending out a lower level bureaucrat rather than a senior administration official, the White House seemed to underestimate the resonance of Clarke’s allegations. For another, Hadley could not speak directly to many of the charges, having not been present at the meetings.
The 60 Minutes performance was admirable, but Clarke’s appearance before the congressional commission was even more powerful.
Unlike witnesses before and after him, Clarke opened not with a self-serving explanation of his own blamelessness but with a frank, heartfelt apology. Again, we have come to expect apologies that come with no admission of personal culpability, circumlocutions acknowledging that “mistakes were made” or implying that any hurt inflicted is the fault of the oversensitive victim: “If anyone was offended by my remarks, I’m sorry.”
But Clarke addressed the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks directly:” Your government failed you… and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask… for your understanding and for your forgiveness.” It was a statement made all the more powerful by the fact that Clarke was the first government official from any administration to take any kind of responsibility.
Says Berman, “Right there, taking personal accountability at a time and in a society where you rarely hear a leader take personal accountability, was one of the great lessons. I’m not surprised that was the moment you saw played back in all the news coverage.”
Confronted throughout by attempts to smear him, Clarke came through the two-hour session not only unscathed but with his credibility enhanced. He did it by addressing every charge head on. There’s a tendency for those who have been media trained to answer the question they prepared for rather than the question they were actually asked. Clarke never resorted to that kind of chicanery. His straightforwardness made the ulterior motives of his accusers all the more embarrassing.
In response to questions from Democratic members of the panel, he remained on message throughout, providing a compelling narrative. The Clinton administration, he said, for all its failures made fighting terrorism “an extremely high priority,” adding that no issue received higher priority. The Bush administration, however, downgraded the position of chief terrorism advisor, and did not treat the problem urgently prior to 9/11. Even after 9/11, he said, many of the president’s closest colleagues seemed focused on Iraq rather than the terrorist threat.
The first attack on Clarke’s credibility came from John Lehrman, former secretary of the Navy, who asked why Clarke had not raised criticisms of the Iraqi invasion during his previous 15 hours of classified testimony to the committee. Lehrman seemed to think the question would rattle the witness. Instead, it provided an opening for one of his most damaging responses.
“No one asked me what I thought about the president’s invasion of Iraq,” said Clarke. “By invading Iraq, the president has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.” If Lehrman thought he had been doing the White House a favor, he was swiftly disabused of that notion: he had spoon-fed Clarke—who had not mentioned Iraq before that moment—one of the most damaging sound bites of the entire session.
Similarly, when Lehman suggested that Clarke—who served in the Reagan and Bush I administrations and voted Republican at the last election (although he says he was a McCain man rather than a Bush fan) might be angling for a job in the Kerry administration, Clarke was clearly ready.
“Let me talk about partisanship here, since you raised it,” he said, noting his past affiliations. “The White House has said that my book is an audition for a high-level position in the Kerry campaign. So let me say here, as I am under oath, that I will not accept any position in the Kerry administration, should there be one.” A long silence followed. Lehman had no further questions.
Even more impressive was his response when confronted with a press briefing he had delivered in 2002 while still a member of the administration. The press briefing—leaked to Fox News by the White House earlier in the day—included none of the criticisms of the Bush administration contained in Clarke’s new book, a contradiction that Republican members of the panel sought to present as evidence that Clarke had changed his position.
We have grown used to seeing others—from commanders in chief like Bill Clinton to CEOs like Bill Gates—duck and weave and prevaricate and split semantic hairs in similar situations. Clarke neither ducked nor weaved. He absorbed the punch and thus revealed it for what it was: the last flailing shot of a defeated and desperate foe.
He calmly and patiently explained that in August 2002 he was still a special assistant to President Bush. He had been asked to provide a background briefing to the press in an attempt to minimize the political damage caused by a Time cover story on the administration’s failure to address terrorism issues prior to 9/11.
Clarke explained his position. “I was asked to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to play down the negative aspects…. When one is a special assistant to the president, one is asked to do that sort of thing. I’ve done it for several presidents.” It was not only an explanation of Clarke’s words in 2002, it was also an explanation of the words of Scott McClellen and Steve Hadley and Condoleeza Rice over the past few days.
Still, Republican commission member James Thompson continued to hammer away. When Clarke explained patiently how Washington works, Thompson asked whether there was “one set of moral rules for special assistants to the White House and another set for everybody else?” Perhaps Thompson hoped to appear naïve about the way politics really works. In reality, he simply came across as a hypocrite, because anyone who has worked in a day in either politics or journalism understands that what Clarke was doing back in 2002 was what government officials do, in this administration or any other.
(It was amusing to see reporters at Fox feign outrage that a background briefing from a member of the administration might be slanted to emphasize the accomplishments of that administration, rather than its shortcomings.)
Clarke’s response to Thomspon was succinct: “I don't think it’s a question of morality at all; I think it’s a question of politics.” The line drew a spontaneous round of applause from the audience, particularly the relatives of 9/11 victims, who later said they were “extremely grateful” for Clarke’s testimony. Meanwhile Thompson, having seriously tarnished the bipartisan veneer of the commission, left the room. He did not return.
Says Sullivan, “Politics aside, he was pretty much unflappable up there. And he was not up against the grapefruit league. These were the pros. Look at [former Treasury Secretary] Paul O’Neill. He went on 60 Minutes and he was lambasted through the media. He was not nearly as good. But Clarke was like all the great communicators in the political world, people like Newt Gingrich. He was ready. He had thought through every counterpunch.”
What resonated so impressively about Clarke’s testimony before the commission was how obvious it was that he had stopped playing the game, and how liberating it must have been to leave all the nonsense behind him.
Says Berman, “If you truly believe in what you are saying, it’s hard not to tell your story effectively, and I think Clarke really believed in what he was saying. So it was not hard for him to stay on message…. If you look at corporate crises, the companies that come through them well are the companies that tell the truth.”
The ultimate measure of Clarke’s credibility, says Matt Reid, is the response. “You can gauge how successful he was from the White House response. You look at the level of coordination of the Bush administration’s attempts to discredit him, and that more than anything tells you how effective he has been and how worried the White House is.”
Whether it will have any impact on the majority of Americans, who saw only the edited highlights of his testimony and not the whole performance, remains to be seen. Says Gillman, “Given the parade of talking heads that followed Clarke’s testimony, however, I am not sure if Clarke changed any opinions.”