- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 25, 2004

I’ll get into Sandy Berger’s pants, crowded as they are, momentarily. But let me sneak up on them in a roundabout way. A few days ago, I woke up to find an e-mail from a pal enclosing the following United Press International story:

“Iraqi security reportedly discovered three missiles carrying nuclear heads concealed in a concrete trench northwest of Baghdad, official sources said Wednesday.”

“Isn’t that great news?” asked my friend, rhetorically. Well, the story didn’t pan out, and a couple of hours later he e-mailed again to apologize for the premature yelping and high-fiving, and adding he hadn’t meant it was great news Saddam had nukes, only that it was great news because it would ruin John Kerry’s and Michael Moore’s day.

True. And that sums up perfectly the rotten state of domestic politics in America. A frivolous uncivil civil war is draining all the energy away from the real war. We warmongers didn’t start the nitpicking, but somehow the entire landscape of U.S. politics has tilted so a nation supposedly at war is spending most of its time looking through the rear window sniping about what was said and done in 2002, 2001, 2000, like the falling calendar leaves in a Hollywood flashback

The Democrats will always win on this playing field because, like some third-rate soap opera, their characters are not required to have any internal consistency.

Take, for example, Max Cleland, Vietnam veteran and former Georgia senator. Last week, speaking in his role as Kerry campaign mascot, he said Mr. Bush went to war in Iraq because “he basically concluded his daddy was a failed president” and he “wanted to be Mr Macho Man” so he “flat-out lied.”

Blistering stuff, huh? Would this be the same Max Cleland who voted to authorize war with Iraq in the U.S. Senate? Perhaps, as he’s so insightful about the president’s psychology, he could enlighten us about own reasons for wanting war with Iraq? Any daddy hang-ups there, Mr. Macho?

This would be unworthy language for any senator to use about the commander in chief in time of war but it’s especially ludicrous from a senator who ran 2002 election commercials boasting “Max Cleland is a respected leader on national security who supports the president on Iraq.” What a pitiful clapped-out hack. At least Michael Moore is a consistent Bush-hater.

Mr. Cleland is tangentially relevant to the September 11 commission’s report. The senator lost his re-election in 2002 not because “Republicans attacked my patriotism,” but because they attacked his demand the new Homeland Security Department be filled with the same old featherbedded jobs-for-life unionized federal workers you can never fire no matter what they do. Like those Immigration and Naturalization Service guys who approved Mohamed Atta’s and Marwan al-Shehhi’s student visas six months after they died on September 11, 2001, piloting their respective planes into World Trade Center Tower One and Tower Two. The INS decisively acted against those responsible, moving Janis Sposato “sideways” to the post of “assistant deputy executive associate commissioner for immigration services.” I don’t know what post she was moved sideways from — possibly associate executive deputy assistant commissioner. Happily, since then, the INS has changed its name to some other acronym and ordered up a whole new set of business cards, extra-large if Ms. Sposato’s title is anything to go by.

And that’s really what Americans should be asking. Aside from the letterheads, what has changed? The September 11 report is fine if you want to know what went wrong that morning. But at least those underperforming federal mediocrities had an excuse: They didn’t know it was September 11. What excuse had Ms. Sposato and colleagues six months later when mailing out the al Qaeda visas? And what are those federal agencies like now, three years on? My sense is the administration has found it very difficult to change the complacent bureaucratic culture Max Cleland wanted to preserve.

And here’s where I have some sympathy with Sandy Berger and his overloaded pants. By his own words, he’s guilty of acts for which any other American would go to jail. He “inadvertently” shoved 30-page classified documents down his pants and then “inadvertently” lost them at home and then “inadvertently” returned to the National Archives to “inadvertently” take another draft of the same 30-page document and “inadvertently” lose that, too. He “inadvertently” made forbidden cellphone calls from the room with the classified documents, and he “inadvertently” took more suspicious bathroom breaks while in the Archives than that Syrian band took on that Los Angeles flight that was in the news last week. If the former national security adviser has an incontinence problem, that at least explains where he was during the ‘90s when Osama was growing bolder and bolder on his watch.

But, if Mr. Berger was simply covering his buns (literally), I don’t care. The minute the decision was taken to convene a September 11 commission during election season, it would obviously boil down to who was most to blame for the day — the eight months of the Bush administration, or the eight years of Bill Clinton — and, given the Clintonian penchant for playing fast and loose with the rules, Sandy Berger wandering out with his pants stuffed tighter than Al Gore’s jeans on that “Rolling Stone” cover has a kind of tacky inevitability about it. Who messed up worst should have been left to the historians, which means when the war is over.

By way of comparison, when Neville Chamberlain resigned in 1940 as Britain’s prime minister, his successor, Winston Churchill, asked him to stay on as leader of the Conservative Party and to remain in the Cabinet. Chamberlain did so, serving loyally under Churchill until cancer forced him from office. He died four weeks later, and Churchill paid him handsome tribute and wept at his bier. I’m not saying Mr. Clinton, Mr. Berger and company are the Chamberlains of this new war. The point is even Chamberlain wasn’t Chamberlain when he died: Posterity had yet to chisel him the one-word epitaph “Appeaser.” And neither side of the appeasement debate thought it worth spending the 1940s arguing about the 1930s: There were other priorities. And, in fairness to Chamberlain, the overwhelming majority of the British people supported “appeasement,” just as, in fairness to Mr. Clinton, most of the American people were happy to string along on an eight-year holiday from history. There’s nothing Sandy Berger can pack down his gusset that can change that; all the rest is details.

What matters is where we’re headed, not where we were. And, in that respect, John Kerry is still looking through the rear window. Not so much because of his remarkably poor choice of advisers — Joe Wilson (the “Politics Of Truth” fraud), Max Cleland (with his schoolyard cries of “Liar, liar”) and Sandy Berger (with his pants on fire) — but because Mr. Kerry’s prescriptions (the United Nations, the French) are so Sept. 10. A holiday from history is one thing. The Democrats are now embarked on a holiday from reality.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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