'Wartime President' MIA
By David Ignatius
Friday, March 26, 2004; Page A23
What would a "wartime president" have done this week, as a bipartisan commission's public hearings on the Sept. 11 tragedy were being engulfed by political bickering?
I like to think that this hypothetical leader would have found a way to rise above the fray and unite the country: He would have embraced the commission's work, forthrightly admitted his own mistakes, sent his national security adviser to testify publicly -- and insisted that the security of the United States was too important to be buried in election-year squabbles.
President Bush and his White House handlers did pretty much the opposite. They fanned the flames of partisan debate; when asked awkward questions, they stonewalled; rather than testify before the cameras, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice spent part of her Wednesday afternoon dishing dirt to reporters about a commission witness who had criticized the president.
Bush flunked the test, in other words. Rather than working to bring the country together, the Bush team added to its nasty political divisions -- and allowed them to contaminate the terrorism commission's work.
It is this failure of leadership -- not any critical comments in the new book by former White House terrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke -- that poses the real problem for Bush's reelection hopes. A wise president would have accepted the obvious truth of what Clarke said: that the White House didn't do all it could have before Sept. 11 to prevent that disaster. He would have apologized, as Clarke did, to the victims -- and moved on.
That kind of magnanimity could have defused Clarke's charges and showed that Bush can lead a divided country. But the White House instead smeared Clarke personally, ignored his substantive criticisms and, in the process, helped turn Sept. 11 into a political football. That's bad for the country and, I submit, bad for Bush politically.
The White House's circle-the-wagons response was in sharp contrast to the impressive and refreshingly self-critical comments by the administration officials who did appear before the committee. They rose to the challenge in a way that Bush and Rice did not.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's crisp, candid testimony illustrated why so many people once assumed he would someday be president himself. He lauded the committee's work and then explained the difficulties he faced in framing a military response to al Qaeda in the months before Sept. 11. Perhaps most important, he reached out to the families of Sept. 11 victims in the hearing room, speaking of "the pain and the heartbreak and the suffering of the families whose loved ones perished."
More rumpled but just as impressive was CIA Director George Tenet. Even though he had been warning about the al Qaeda threat for nearly five years before Sept. 11, he took the blame for failing to stop the plot and to close the gaps in intelligence that prevented its detection. "We collectively did not close those gaps rapidly or fully enough before September 11th," Tenet admitted.
Yes, the White House feels under attack in an election year. And, yes, Clarke may be selling some books with his incendiary claim that the Bush administration did not consider terrorism an "urgent" issue until Sept. 11. But these factors don't excuse the White House's go-for-the-jugular approach on such an important topic.
A "wartime president" would find ways to rise above this partisan din and speak to the country, calmly and convincingly. He would take the blame onto his own shoulders, rather than leaving it for subordinates to admit mistakes. In his speeches and by his very body language, he would defuse the apprehension and anger people feel in such stressful times.
For reasons that are hard to fathom, Bush still lacks that reassuring touch. More than three years into his presidency, he still looks uneasy in many of his public appearances; he still lacks the grace and charm of a Ronald Reagan that would disarm critics. In recent months, he has seemed oddly off-key even on the issues that matter to him most, such as terrorism.
I criticized John Kerry a week ago for failing to rise to the challenge of wartime leadership by not offering clear policies on Iraq and terrorism that put these issues beyond politics. I must make a similar critique of Bush. This is a crucial election, in which the United States is facing its most serious problems in decades -- deadly enemies abroad, frayed alliances with old friends, a sluggish economy, a bitterly divided electorate.
I can't help feeling that the winning candidate will be the one who can bridge the domestic divide and give the country a confident sense of purpose. In short, the winner will be the one who truly earns the mantle of "wartime president." This week, that wasn't George Bush.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company