Richard Clarke, rushing to the White House as hijacked planes crash into buildings on 9/11, barks into a phone: "Activate the CSG on secure video."

This is the first time we hear his voice in "Against All Enemies," and it captures the man: He issues commands, speaks in acronyms, understands the interdepartmental communications infrastructure. He knows how to run a video conference. He know who's in the PEOC and how many minutes until the CAP is in place. He is the one who activates the COG.

Running a meeting of the Counterterrorism Security Group, Clarke is the kind of man who says, "POTUS is inbound Offutt. I need video connectivity to STRATCOM and I need them to have this PowerPoint."

(Whereas POTUS himself -- the President of the United States -- is the kind of man who says in a meeting with Clarke and others, "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.")

Despite his procedural virtuosity, no one could call Clarke a pencil-pusher. No, he's pistol-packing. He writes that, late on the night of the attacks, "I had to get back to the White House and begin planning to prevent follow-on attacks. I found my Secret Service-issued .357 sidearm, thrust it in my belt, and went back out into the night, back to the West Wing."

Richard Clarke: The alpha-bureaucrat.

The political controversy over Clarke's book centers on his explosive charge that the White House failed to prepare adequately for Sept. 11, 2001, and that President Bush and top aides were determined to find a link to Saddam Hussein to justify a long-planned, counterproductive invasion of Iraq. The White House has branded Clarke a self-promoter who became disgruntled after being passed over for a higher post.

However that high-stakes political battle turns out, Clarke's book has given America a vivid glimpse of culture clash at the highest level of government. The protagonist is a career civil servant with an ability to amass unusual amounts of power and make himself indispensable in a crisis. The antagonists are politicians and political operatives and other bureaucrats, people who fail to schedule the high-level briefings they need, who don't heed the civil servant's warnings, who drop the ball time and time again.

Clarke's book provides an archetypal figure that has been relatively rare in popular culture or political discourse: the Heroic Bureaucrat. As a general rule, Americans have viewed bureaucrats as irritating figures. In common speech, to be "bureaucratic" is to be obsessed with procedure and prone to inertia.

Bureaucrats are seen as the kind of people who follow rules that make no sense and have nightmares about someone using a No. 1 pencil instead of a No. 2 pencil. A bureaucrat is someone who attends a long-delayed meeting on the topic of whether a task force should examine the chronic shortage of available meeting rooms.

And yet there has been a recent fluorescence of Heroic Bureaucrat stories. In December 2002, FBI special agent Coleen Rowley, who wrote a blistering memo to the FBI director about agency missteps in the hunt for terrorists, joined two private sector whistle-blowers as Time magazine's Persons of the Year. Medicare's chief actuary, Richard Foster, recently declared that the new prescription drug benefit would cost about $134 billion more than congressional budgeteers had estimated. And D.C. Water and Sewer Authority bureaucrat Seema Bhat warned about lead in the water, only to be fired for making too many complaints directly to the Environment Protection Agency.

In "Strange but True Tales From Hollywood: The Bureaucrat as Movie Hero," an article in Public Administration & Management: An Interactive Journal, professors Mordecai Lee and Susan Paddock of the University of Wisconsin state that, although demonization of bureaucrats is the norm in cinema, there are exceptions. They cite Adm. James Greer (James Earl Jones) in "The Hunt for Red October." In "Brazil," the Jonathan Pryce character resists the Orwellian bureaucracy that surrounds him. In "2010," Roy Scheider plays a bureaucrat who goes on a dangerous mission to Jupiter to find out what killed the astronauts in "2001: A Space Odyssey" ("We lost some good men up there. And I sent them. I have to go," he says.) The professors could not find a movie in which an entire government agency acts heroically.

There are many levels of civil servants, from the GS-1s to the GS-15s, and then on up the bureaucratic ranks, to the Senior Executive Service mandarins. And at the very top of the hierarchy, bigger right now than anyone else, defying all previous limits on civil service notoriety, there's Richard Clarke.

"By the mid-1990s, Dick Clarke had become one of the rare career civil servants in Washington to rise to the uppermost regions of the policy-making world. He had become an indispensable, if sometimes uncontrollable, figure in the national security apparatus," write Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in their book "The Age of Sacred Terror."

Clarke spent 30 years in government. He was in the State Department for years during the Reagan administration, then moved to the White House during the first Bush administration, eventually serving under three presidents before leaving the government in March 2003. The extent of his power waxed and waned; under Clinton he became known as the Counterterrorism Czar, though his official title was more bureaucratically proper: National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counterterrorism.

He had a gift for knowing precisely what to do in an emergency. Benjamin, who worked under and alongside Clarke for more than five years at the National Security Council, said: "He's as good as they get in terms of crisis management. He's completely sovereign. He's just completely in control."

Benjamin continued: "He knew all the levers and pulleys of policy. . . . He just had this unbelievable knowledge of every nook and cranny, every office that had competence over every issue." Clarke knew, he said, "how to work the machine." His aggressiveness, however, drove some people crazy, Benjamin said.

The second Bush administration retained Clarke after Clinton left office. In a political system in which most White House computers are cleaned out when one administration gives way to the next, Clarke served as a locus of institutional memory. And on 9/11, everyone seems to agree, Clarke instantly took charge -- becoming, as he puts it, "the nation's crisis manager."

For years he had chaired the CSG, the Counterterrorism Security Group (although Benjamin and Simon in their book say the acronym originally stood for "Coordinating Subgroup"). In "Against All Enemies," we see Clarke racing to the White House, meeting briefly with his boss, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Cheney, and then entering a small paneled room in the West Wing called the Secure Video Conferencing Center (in the book, many ordinary-sounding places and procedures, such as "Morning Staff Meeting," are given uppercase treatment).

Clarke asks Rice if she wants to run the Principals meeting, in which the top officials from different agencies appear on screens in the conference room.

"No," she says. "You run it."

Clarke's in charge.

Rice soon goes down to the PEOC -- the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. Clarke clearly doesn't need her. He knows how to implement COG (Continuity of Government) and order CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over every major city in the country. In the book he mentions the time that President Clinton spent a few minutes running a CSG video conference after the Oklahoma City bombing. It was nice to have the high-level attention, Clarke writes, but "it would have slowed down our response if he had stayed."

The I'm-in-charge-here tone of his account may be delivered in the distinct cadence of Al Haig, but no one has accused Clarke of having a Walter Mitty fantasy. He does hand off some of the glory to colleagues who stay with Clarke in the White House even as hijacked planes appear to be bearing down upon them. He quotes one of his civil service colleagues, Roger Cressey, saying, "If we don't hold this thing together, no one will."

Clarke is cool, calm and collected to the point of being nerveless. When a plane crashes into the Pentagon during the video conference, he says to everyone present: "No emotion in here. We are going to stay focused."

Only when he attends the funeral of a close friend, killed in the attacks, does he allow himself to weep.

As a bureaucratic action hero, Clarke necessarily spends a lot of time describing meetings and e-mails and phone calls ("I punched the PEOC button on the large, white secure phone that had twenty speed dial buttons"). A bureaucrat's ultimate act is simply dedication: the 18-hour workdays, the willingness to survive on the occasional sandwich from the White House mess. Clarke describes how, at one point on 9/11, his car was the only one in the parking lot outside the evacuated White House.

Not long after the attack, he had to cross from the West Wing to the East Wing. "[A]s I walked through the West Wing and the Residence, there was no one there," he writes.

Except Clarke. For a moment, he's practically the president of the United States.

He goes down a set of stairs and comes face to face with machine-gun-toting guards. They are stationed outside the PEOC. Clarke endures a frisking and then enters the bunker.

Shotguns are propped up along the narrow corridor. Clarke describes the "cast" of the room as "decidedly more political." There's the vice president. There's Condi Rice. There are several top Cheney aides. There's Cheney's wife, Lynne, "offering her advice and opinions." A military aide whispers to Clarke that Mrs. Cheney keeps turning down the volume on the crisis conference video monitor -- turning down the volume on the meeting Clarke has been running all morning! -- because she wants to hear CNN.

Now Clarke moves in and squats between Cheney and Rice. Cheney tells him that the communications apparatus in the bunker is terrible.

And Clarke delivers the devastating bureaucratic response:

"Now you know why I wanted the money for a new bunker?"

Richard Clarke is the focus as he is sworn in last week to testify before the commission investigating Sept. 11, 2001.Examples of the Heroic Bureaucrat include FBI special agent Coleen Rowley, above, who in 2002 wrote a blistering memo to the FBI director about agency missteps in the terrorist hunt, and Seema Bhat, who was fired by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority last year for taking her complaints about lead in the water to the EPA.