- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

A few Democrats, some misguided families of victims and Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi, Republican, havemanaged to turn a good idea into a mediocre prospect for finding the answers to what went wrong before September 11 and how to head off a second occurrence.
The decisions by former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell and then former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger not to participate in the federal commission created to investigate September 11 because of alleged conflicts of interest not only demonstrates the need to reform the demands made on private citizens who are asked to perform difficult jobs without compensation, it leaves the commission pretty much devoid of prestige.
Mr. Lott added to the problem caused by Democrats and surviving families by refusing to appoint to the panel Republican former Sen. Warren Rudman, who already had done serious work in this area. Ironically, Mr. Rudman was favored by the victims' families.
To replace Mr. Kissinger as chairman, President Bush has named former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a decent manager by all accounts but woefully short on the expertise and public persona that Mr. Kissinger would have given the panel's investigation. Mr. Mitchell's replacement is former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who headed the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has a sterling reputation. But he lacks Mr. Mitchell's international stature. The rest of those named come under the heading of who-cares.
Mr. Mitchell turned down the joint chairmanship with Mr. Kissinger because it would have required him to give up clients in his law firm. Mr. Kissinger bowed out after refusing to release the names of his clients in an international consulting business. Both men were eminently qualified and because of their records should have been excluded from these onerous demands.
Mr. Kissinger is not always the most likable person. He can be pompous and pedantic and snobbish, both socially and intellectually. He doesn't suffer fools lightly and he can put almost anyone in that category. But he is brilliant, and there is no disputing that. It is preposterous to suggest that the former secretary of state isn't an honest man or that he would put his own interests above those of his country or that he would demean for personal financial gain a lifelong career of public service that includes the Nobel Peace Prize.
But that is exactly the thrust of their critics. The implication is that Mr. Kissinger is hiding a conflict of interest and couldn't be trusted to give an honest performance if a client's interests are involved. He could not be neutral, as it were. That is not only politically inspired hogwash, it is an insult to someone of his stature. He rightly refused.
Along with Mr. Mitchell, he could have been expected to lead a forthright and diligent probe of the intelligence and policy weaknesses that led to September 11 and how they can be avoided in the future.
Also, I have yet to understand why the survivors and the families of victims have any more interest in the outcome of the commission's work than the rest of us. Nor do I believe they should have any more influence in the matter than anyone else. We are sorry for them and we grieve with them, but they should remember that the entire nation suffered from this tragedy. Furthermore, their constant whining about compensation and other matters has become as tiresome as Mr. Kissinger's accent.
Equally alarming as the immediate questions raised about Mr. Kissinger's integrity is the constant barrage of similar volleys fired at nearly every successful person who answers the call for government service, either as part of an administration or merely as an unpaid adviser. Nearly every appointment faces the most intense scrutiny by the White House, by Congress and by the press. While this has resulted in catching some who should never have been nominated, it has often brought unnecessary embarrassment to others who are honest and qualified. No one is perfect, and the fear of character assassination over minor incidents magnified for political reasons has become a major deterrent to the enlistment of good candidates for public service.
Financial disclosure is necessary for those seeking elected office or who have been appointed to full-time positions in government. But it seems we often go too far, particularly when we make similar demands of volunteers with long histories of distinguished public service and who regularly risk their livelihoods and their health without compensation.
As a result of all this political shuffling, the commission now becomes just another undistinguished panel whose findings aren't likely to carry the same weight they would have had with the presence of Messrs. Kissinger, Mitchell and Rudman.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.


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