9/11 and the Presidency

The name that repeatedly cropped up in the frenzied speculation about the damage, if any, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 Commission had on President Bush was John Dean, Richard Nixon's former chief counsel. It was his smoking gun testimony before the Watergate committee thirty years ago that dumped the blame for criminal wrongdoing by the president's men in the Watergate scandal squarely on Nixon's doorstep. Dean is universally credited as the man who sank Nixon's presidency.

But there is no danger of that happening to Bush. There are just too many differences between Dean and Rice. Dean was a disillusioned whistle blower. Rice is Bush's close friend, and confidant. Dean was not a top Nixon policy maker.

Rice, by contrast, has helped shape Bush foreign policy. Dean was not a doctrinaire political partisan. Rice is a fierce Bush political partisan. Before the Watergate scandal broke, Dean was a relatively unknown legal shadow man in the Nixon circle. Rice is a prominent, skilled and highly acclaimed foreign affairs expert with media star power allure.

Rice's mission is to give the best defense for her and the Bush administration possible. She reviewed statements, documents, and policy reports and her aides grilled her with tough questions before her commission appearance. By permitting her to make a 20-minute opening statement, the commission gave her wide latitude to seize the political high ground and strongly make the case that there was no laxity in the Bush administration's fight against terrorism. Counter terrorism expert Richard Clarke couldn't rebut anything she said, this eliminated the chance of any "he said she said" exchanges. The last word was hers.

The general consensus was that she left a favorable impression in her testimony and that will be the impression of the Bush administration's action that will be what the American public gets.

Then there's the commission. It is not totally hostile territory for Rice.

There are five Republicans on it. The Chairman Tom Keane, a Republican, has repeatedly said that it is not conducting a political witch-hunt. Even though skeptical Democrats asked Rice some tough questions, she still had wide leeway to "filibuster," as one commissioner said, spin, and massage her testimony to put the best face on Bush's administration blatant intelligence lapses. In preliminary reports, the commission has scrupulously avoided fingering any Bush officials for blame. In a widely quoted statement, Kean noted that, "Nobody has clean hands in this one." The commission has until July to release its final report. The likelihood is that that won't happen.

The report will be submitted to the White House for review. A Bush special clearance team will vet the report with a fine toothcomb. The team will ransack every word of testimony, memo and report for any inaccuracy, inconsistency or contradiction. Anything that could be potentially damaging to Bush officials will be challenged and questioned. All of this takes time, lots of it. It took Bush officials seven months to approve an earlier congressional report on the 9/11 attacks. That means public release of the report could be delayed until after the November presidential elections. If Bush is reelected, the public wrangle between Rice and Clarke will long be a faint memory, and the fall-out, if any, will be minimal.

But even if the report were released before the elections and Bush took some hits, short of the commission concluding that Bush officials knew of an attack and did nothing to stop it, the commission's findings aren't likely to shake the Bush faithful. A Los Angeles Times poll found that though a bare majority of Americans believed that Clarke's charge that Bush officials were caught napping before the attack was credible, a majority still said Bush was doing a good job in fighting terrorism. That was consistent with polls taken immediately after Clarke testified. Though a majority of Americans expressed doubts about the preparedness of Bush officials, they still gave him fairly high marks on security issues.

The Democrats don't have any political traction from the 9/11-commission flap. In fact, they have treaded lightly around the hearings for a good reason; they don't want to risk being accused of playing partisan politics with the 3000 lives that were lost during the attacks. Also, during the commission hearings, polls show that presumed Democratic presidential rival John Kerry's negativisms among voters had jumped.

Rice's personal experience with the horror of terrorism also made it tough to paint her as insensitive on the issue. The eight-year Rice heard the explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that killed four black girls. The racist terror attack made a deep impression on her. In a speech at Stanford University's graduation ceremony in 2002, she called the church bombing an experience that she could never forget and likened it to the experience of September 11. Though she did not apologize to the families for the Bush administration's failures, only one commissioner raised it as an issue.

In a recent appearance on PBS's Now with Bill Moyers, Dean called Bush's alleged deceptions on 9/11 "impeachable." It figured he'd say that, but Rice will do everything in her power to make sure that doesn't happen. She's no Dean.

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