George Tenet got slam-dunked yesterday.
Officially, the CIA director resigned for personal reasons. CIA officials say he wasn't pushed. President Bush says he's sorry to see Tenet go. "He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people," Bush said. Tenet's seven-year tenure was eventful and embattled.
Yet his legacy may distill into a taunting shorthand: slam-dunk.
As in, it was a "slam-dunk" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Or so Tenet said, with the kind of unambiguous self-assurance that Bush so admires. These will go down as Tenet's famous last words, even though he uttered them more than a year ago.
"George, how confident are you?" the president asked Tenet, in an exchange depicted in Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack."
"Don't worry, it's a slam-dunk," Tenet said.
A war ensued, a presidency was redefined and a non-basketball player became forever affixed to the term "slam-dunk."
Every so often, a political figure utters a word or phrase that rises to the level of an epitaph. Al Haig said, "I am in charge"; Bill Clinton said, "It depends what your definition of 'is' is"; and Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook." Howard Dean screamed his famous last word ("eeeyaow"), and Dan Quayle merely looked stunned as Lloyd Bentsen impaled him with "You're no Jack Kennedy."
George H.W. Bush will forever be saying "Read my lips," while Bob Dole will always be glaring at him, telling him to "stop lying about my record."
Now comes Tenet, whose phrase captures the ethos of not just one person but of an entire administration. In basketball, slam-dunks score points, please the home crowd and taunt the opposition -- in the same way that supporters of the administration appreciate Bush for his decisiveness while critics deride it as arrogance.
Sometimes slam-dunks clang off the back of the rim and sail to half-court. The would-be slam-dunker is mocked and embarrassed. Only, in basketball, this is a temporary state. In politics -- and particularly in wartime -- Tenet's clang reverberates far longer.
One of the downsides of being a figure of responsibility and consequence -- unlike, say, a TV pundit -- is that people actually keep track of what you say. They might even hold it against you if you're wrong.
"Slam-dunk is the only thing Tenet has ever said, as far as I know," says Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota. This, of course, is not fair, in the same way that it's not fair that Bill Buckner's long and distinguished baseball career inevitably comes down to his error that lost the sixth game of the 1986 World Series.
But certain errors take on lives of their own, especially when rendered in sound-bite form. "Nobody's corporate memory is big enough to hold all the complexities of one person," says former congresswoman Pat Schroeder. "You're looking for a hook into someone, something to grab onto."
Tenet hooked himself. He is a victim of his own pithiness. If he had been long-winded and equivocal, Washington would have forgotten his words, if not his guidance. If he had spoken, say, in Kerryese: Mr. President, I am fairly certain that there is a strong case, a solid case, a convincing case, that Saddam Hussein could well possess, according to what we know now, weapons of mass destruction . . .
Instead, Tenet's "slam-dunk" offers an object lesson in famous last word-play: It combines pop culture jargon and monumental stakes.
"Tenet's statement is so clear, direct, assertive and just completely wrong," says Ralph Whitehead, a political analyst who teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. There's a populist satisfaction at work, says Whitehead. "It's reassuring to know that even the big boys can be so totally, demonstrably off base."
Clare Boothe Luce once said that history gives leaders a single line, such as "Lincoln freed the slaves," or "Churchill faced down Hitler." Ideally, the line is flattering, but that is determined by events. If, for instance, weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, Tenet's "slam-dunk" line could have just as easily been his triumphant slogan. It would have been writ large and proud on the banner of his career: His "Mission Accomplished," in other words.