Washington When President Bush appeared momentarily on Tuesday afternoon in the White House briefing room, he came to announce a surrender. After weeks of resistance, he had capitulated to the growing political pressure for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to give the bipartisan commission investigating the 9-11 tragedy her sworn public testimony.
Bush's surrender came nine days after his former top counterterrorism aide, Richard Clarke, had fired a missile into the heart of Bush's proudest boast -- and the main plank of his re-election campaign -- by charging the president with indifference to the threat of terrorism before 9-11.
For nine days, the White House and its allies did everything in their power to discredit Clarke, while trying to shield his old boss, Rice, from the commission's unanimous request that she give sworn public testimony in response to Clarke's stunning indictment.
When the effort to shoot the messenger failed to halt the political erosion, Bush did what he never should have done: He threw Rice to the commission. And, worse, he failed to do what he long since could have done: Offer the American people and the world a clear, coherent and detailed account of his own activities and state of mind in the months leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Instead of acting as the man in charge, and saying to the commission, "No, you may not put my national security adviser on the mat, but I will answer to the public for what happened," he did just the opposite. He gave up Rice and then turned on his heel and walked out of the briefing room even as reporters were trying to ask him questions.
At a time when the American people -- and the world -- desperately need reassurance that the government was not asleep at the switch, Bush has clenched his jaw and said nothing that would ease those concerns. Instead, he has arranged that when he answers the commission's questions in a yet-to-be-scheduled private session, he will not face it alone. He and Vice President Cheney will appear together. It will be interesting to learn who furnishes most of the answers.
Bush was on sound constitutional ground in rejecting calls for Rice's testimony. The right of a president to receive candid advice from his staff members -- and to shield them from being second-guessed by officials of the legislative branch or their designees -- is fundamental. Cabinet members, because they are confirmed by the Senate and their departments are financed by Congress, do have a responsibility to respond to such inquiries. But the president's men and women have only one obligation -- to give him their best judgment. Some quit and go public, as Clarke did, when they no longer can support his policies.
Ironically, the president had spoken in Appleton, Wis., on the morning of his surrender. Appleton was the hometown of the late Joe McCarthy. And it was Dwight Eisenhower, in resisting McCarthy's efforts to intimidate executive branch employees, who gave strong voice to the doctrine of executive privilege Bush now has weakened.
He received a fig leaf concession from the commission and leaders of Congress -- the statement that Rice's appearance would not be treated as a precedent, but simply an acknowledgment of the special circumstances and vast public interest in unraveling the 9-11 tragedy. But a precedent it is -- and it certainly will be cited the next time a congressional committee or commission wants to go fishing for revelations from the White House.
It is not much of a model of leadership.
Robert Kagan and William Kristol have taken strong exception to my last column, in which I criticized their editorial essay in The Weekly Standard of March 22, titled "Iraq One Year Later," for its failure to mention the question of the missing weapons of mass destruction. They point out that a month earlier, they had written extensively on the weapons question. They say "it is simply not true that ... we have tried to 'slip-slide away' from the failure so far to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Their Feb. 23 essay concludes this way: "(W)e are willing to be persuaded that Saddam had no weapons stockpiles last year when the war began. But it is too soon, we believe, to come firmly to that conclusion." I leave it to the reader to decide whether that is "slip-sliding." But I still find it remarkable that in assessing the gains and losses of the Iraq venture on March 22, they never thought it necessary even to note the main justification for starting the war.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.