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While GOP Assails Clarke, America Still Waits for a Real Debate

Depending on which White House aide or Republican surrogate you talk to, Richard A. Clarke is a “hypocrite” or “self-serving” or a “disgruntled office seeker” or possibly all of the above.

According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the fact that Clarke’s book arrived in stores during the week of his 9/11 commission testimony constitutes an “appalling act of profiteering” on the tragedy of the attacks. This is a charge from Bush-Cheney’s point person in the Senate and from the party that has no problem airing video footage of dead Americans being lifted from Ground Zero in a political campaign commercial. At some point, the Bush administration needs to answer the issues raised by Richard Clarke on the merits and stop hiding behind executive privilege. [IMGCAP(1)]

Condoleezza Rice, one of the smartest and most politically savvy women in the country, says she can’t testify before the 9/11 commission because of principle. Here are few other principles she might consider: The American people deserve answers from their government on such a catastrophic failure to keep them safe on U.S. soil. If she can speak before every news outlet in the Western world, she can testify before the commission charged to investigate that catastrophic failure. Hiding behind “executive privilege,” as Richard Nixon learned the hard way, will ultimately lead the public to assume the government is hiding information from them.

What makes the current Clarke saga so tragic is the importance of what Clarke is saying. Even if false, the charges he has leveled against the Bush administration — that the president largely ignored al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001, and that the Iraq war was a distraction from the war on terror — are worthy of debate. Yet the White House is not interested in that debate. They would rather run from the truth than confront it. The families of those who died in the attacks deserve better.

The truth is that the “spin” coming from the White House is more dizzying today than it has ever been. Bush feels free to joke about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq at a Washington dinner for a few good chuckles, but is unable to look the American people straight in the eye and admit that the reasons he took us to war were unfounded.

Bush tells crowds at campaigns rallies that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) will raise their taxes. Given that most of these crowds are made up of Republican donors, there may be some truth to that charge — most of the crowd does likely fall in the top 2 percent of Americans who might pay slightly higher taxes if Kerry were president. Yet the rest of America is told the same thing on Orwellian-looking TV commercials, belying the truth that Kerry is proposing tax cuts for the majority of taxpayers.

Time after time, we hear calls for a “serious debate” during the election cycle. We are not headed in the right direction, and we have little time to turn things around.

First, Kerry must get better at articulating clear lines of attack against Bush. Watching former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic Unity Dinner last week, it was hard not be reminded of how effective Clinton is as a politician. He skillfully took up Kerry’s cause and explained his “flip-flopping” on the vote against the $87 billion for Iraq. While we can’t expect Kerry to become Clinton, a little of his quick wit and persuasive speaking style would go a long way. There is no reason to expect the White House to get any more honest in its rhetoric, so we must be ready to respond. There is a substantial case to be made against this president, and Kerry must rise to the challenge.

Moreover, the media has got to do a better job of sorting through the facts. Devoting half of the news coverage about the Clarke story to Republican spinners railing against his credibility represents neither fair nor balanced journalism. Investigative journalism seems to have been replaced by an echo chamber, so replete with angry voices that the truth has no chance of being heard. There must be more independent analysis and clearer, more factual reporting. The debate has been dumbed down to a remedial level — and the media has a responsibility to pick it back up.

Finally, the White House ought to consider trying to win this one fair and square. The American people are on to the game. After the 2000 Republican convention which promised compassionate conservatism, the “Mission Accomplished” banner declaring an end to the conflict in Iraq, the prescription drug package that is set to bankrupt Medicare next decade, and now the smear campaign against Richard Clarke, few can doubt the power of the White House image machine — or its falseness.

If Republican values really are better for the country, then the GOP should make that case. For now, they seem content hiding from the truth and throwing mud anywhere they can, including at a civil servant who was fighting terrorism long before it became just another way to win an election.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.

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