Bush Martial Art: Attack On Clarke Is ‘Smear Rodeo’

George W. Bush has been accused, in the words of his former anti-terrorism czar, of doing “a terrible job” of fighting terrorism-distracted by what Richard Clarke called a misadventure in Iraq and a feckless defense of the homeland. But Mr. Bush has done a fine task of fighting Mr. Clarke himself, the pistol-packing, media-savvy, double-breasted spook who dared to question Mr. Bush’s national-security credentials and has been rewarded with the kind of bombardment usually saved for downtown Baghdad.

The Brutalization of Richard Clarke is a reminder that, whatever weak points Mr. Bush may be faulted for, putting out a hit is not one. Not since Richard Nixon dispatched flying monkeys with names like Colson and Liddy after his many enemies has a White House so fully mastered the art of political kneecapping. Mr. Clarke has joined a string of Bush administration critics to be mugged with almost effortless precision.

Martin Amis wrote that “there is only one rule in street and bar fights: maximum violence, instantly.” It is a lesson the Bush team has applied to politics, as Mr. Clarke has said he was prepared to experience: “These are mean and nasty people,” he said on Nightline .

“If smear and slander can be an art form, they’ve perfected it,” said John Weaver, the Republican-turned-Democratic adviser to Senator John McCain, who saw the Bush team’s cool savagery firsthand during the 2000 primaries, when Mr. McCain was suddenly made out to be a half-cocked, corrupt Washington insider. “This is not their first smear rodeo.”

Certainly not.

A series of departed aides have had the temerity to tell what they saw at the White House, only to be mowed down. Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who revealed the phoniness of Mr. Bush’s uranium-yellowcake Niger claim, saw his wife’s C.I.A. cover blown as punishment. Paul O’Neill, Mr. Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, who cooperated with an unflattering book on the administration, was rewarded with a government investigation. And John DiIulio, the brilliant academic who weighed in on the hollowness of the White House’s domestic-policy operation, wound up issuing a humiliating, Maoist-style forced retraction.

We’ve seen this enough times, in fact, that it’s possible to draw up a rough playbook based on the White House’s character-mauling tactics as displayed over the past three years. Think of it as a modern political version of The Art of War , in which Sun Tzu advised fellow warriors, when confronting an enemy, to “rouse him, discover the springs of his actions. Make his form visible.” Making the enemy’s form visible-that is the first rule of Karl Rove warfare. Here are some of the Bush team’s preferred methods:

1) Ridicule the enemy: The day after his 60 Minutes interview, White House officials were already sneering at “Dick Clarke’s American Grandstand.” Joe Wilson’s C.I.A.-backed mission to Niger was quickly lampooned by influential Republicans as an amateurish adventure. Writing in The Wall Street Journal , Caspar Weinberger, a former Defense Secretary under President Reagan, mocked this “sloppy tea-drinking ‘investigation’ from … a retired ambassador with a less than stellar record.”

2) Make him look corrupt: White House allies-most notably Bill Frist, the courtly Senate Republican leader-began threatening last week that Mr. Clarke may be open to perjury charges if his public testimony is found to clash with the private account he gave the Congressional 9/11 commission in 2002. After Paul O’Neill, the former Treasury Secretary, gave reams of notes and papers to author Ron Suskind for his book The Price of Loyalty , the Treasury Department ostentatiously opened an investigation into whether Mr. O’Neill had divulged classified government documents. The investigation found that the fault lay with the department itself, not Mr. O’Neill.

3) Expose his “petty motives”: The White House rushed to note that Mr. Clarke’s “best buddy” is Rand Beers, another former administration counterterror official who now advises John Kerry, and suggested that Mr. Clarke is sucking up for a position in a Kerry White House. Speaking on the Senate floor last week, meanwhile, Mr. Frist, a close ally of the White House, called Mr. Clarke’s book “an appalling act of profiteering.” White House officials also say that Mr. Clarke was resentful about his career path. “Mr. Clarke has been out there talking about what title he had,” added White House spokesman Scott McClellan, as if that was Mr. Clarke’s chief complaint. Likewise, Mr. O’Neill was derided as a crotchety old grouch settling scores. “He was mad and quite bitter … and, you know, bitter people tend to write books like that,” said Lawrence Lindsey, a former top economic adviser to Mr. Bush, speaking to Fox News. After Mr. DiIulio, the former director of the White House’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, aired his complaints about the shallowness of Mr. Bush’s domestic-policy operation, the White House’s reliable conservative columnist, Robert Novak, was quick to acid-dip him in his column as “a registered Democrat who voted for Al Gore.”

4) Get personal: Bush officials are trashing Mr. Clarke as a phony who acted warmly toward Mr. Bush and his aides when he was in government and now savages him when it’s convenient. Both Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Novak have subtly implied racism-suggesting, as Mr. Novak put it on CNN, that Mr. Clarke has “a problem with this African-American woman, Condoleezza Rice.” There have also been insinuations about the personal life of Mr. Clarke, who is unmarried. The conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, for instance, has taken to calling Mr. Clarke a “drama queen.” Mr. Wilson’s C.I.A.-backed mission to investigate claims of an Iraqi effort to purchase uranium from Niger was also quickly lampooned. Then someone in the White House went directly after his wife, leaking her name to Mr. Novak and blowing her cover at the C.I.A.; the leak is now the subject of a Justice Department investigation. “Joe Wilson told the truth, and they took a baseball bat to him and his wife,” said John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and now president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. “When they can’t explain the facts, they beat you personally.”

5) Make him an offer he can’t refuse: It’s still not clear just what White House officials may have said to Mr. DiIulio, but the conclusion to his saga had the feel of a Communist show trial. Mere days after their White House press secretary Ari Fleischer denounced Mr. DiIulio’s charges as “baseless and groundless,” the Philadelphia academic released a terse statement calling his own highly detailed allegations about the White House, well, “groundless and baseless …. I am deeply remorseful,” Mr. DiIulio added, sounding a bit like a purged Bolshevik headed off to the firing squad.

6) Accuse him of opportunism: Of course, the White House surrogates have suggested that Mr. Clarke wrote a sensationalistic book to make a fortune, despite the fact that departing members of every administration ever have attached themselves to the biggest book advance they could find and proceeded to unload. They also said that he timed the publication of his book to match the 9/11 hearings. Nobody who knows the New York publishing industry could have taken the notion of this kind of precision planning seriously.

So far, these techniques have served Mr. Bush well. His various critics have managed to blast his bunker, but suffered far more damage to themselves in the effort. The efficacy of the Bush White House impresses even veterans of the Clinton administration, which, by the way, wasn’t averse to lethal hit tactics itself against the President’s former and alleged girlfriends-Juanita Brodderick, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky-when they showed up ready to rock Mr. Clinton’s Presidency. (They tended to appear in front of television cameras with lawyers and were rewarded with brutal, immediate assaults on their very personhood.) But the Clinton people say there’s a difference, that the Bush targets are being punished for dissenting on policy.

“If they can’t put duct tape over your mouth, they lower the public boom on your head,” said Mr. Podesta.

But it’s been Mr. Clarke who has felt Washington’s latest, biggest boom, and with the trademark tactics of a martial-arts-trained anti-P.R. crew. The retribution has been fast and the wounds instant, partly because his charges uniquely go to the vital organs of Mr. Bush’s political identity: that he is the unquestioned defender of America from terrorists. When Mr. Clarke suggested otherwise, the White House responded by turning their turrets toward him and leaving a charred mass of discredited ex-aide-it’s their trademark.

And it works. The debate surrounding Mr. Clarke has moved from his contentions about anti-terror policy to the size of his book advance-the subject of recent complaints by talk-radio host Don Imus-and whether he resented working for Ms. Rice because she’s a black woman.

“This was overwhelming and to the quick,” said an admiring Grover Norquist, the conservative activist closely allied with the White House. Per Mr. Amis: “Maximum violence, instantly.”

On Monday, a CNN– USA Today –Gallup poll affirmed the success of the approach: More people said they trust Mr. Bush over Mr. Clarke by a 46-44 margin-meaning that Mr. Clarke had failed to break through the nation’s red-blue partisan divide and change any minds. “I think his credibility is shot,” said G.O.P. consultant Charlie Black, who works with the current administration. “The average voter never heard of Dick Clarke two weeks ago. Then he comes up and says things that sound sensational. But then you get people they know and trust-like Rice, Powell and Rumsfeld-to say he’s wrong. They trust those people. The best case for them is that it’s confusion.”

For President Bush, confusion means victory. Confusion means that Mr. Clarke’s most important charge-that the Iraq war and patchwork homeland-security system leaves us vulnerable to terrorism right now-has become shrouded by the fog of the political war.

It’s not clear just who the author of this attack manual is. Mr. Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, is typically assumed to be the master orchestrator. In an odd bit of disclosure, Mr. Bush’s officials revealed that the President himself had personally approved the attacks on Mr. Clarke. Mr. Weaver, the former adviser to John McCain, finds that entirely plausible. “Karl Rove gets too much credit and too much blame for everything that happens in this administration,” he said. “Campaigns and administrations take on the personality of the officeholder and the candidate. Period.”