The most revealing moment in the acres of press coverage of Richard Clarke came when Tim Russert asked him, on Meet the Press, why he was saying one thing now and quite a different thing two years ago when asked many of the same questions about the Bush administration’s counter-terror policy. Here, in part, is his reply:
Now, the question is: Why do you do that? I thought Pat Buchanan, a conservative Republican, former White House aide, put it pretty well last night when he was asked the same question. He said, “When you’re in the White House, you may disagree with policy.” But when you’re asked to defend that policy, you defend it, if you’re a special assistant to the president, as Pat Buchanan was and as I was. I had a choice. I could have done what I was asked to do and defend them when they were being criticized for not having done enough before September 11 or I could have resigned. Why didn’t I resign? Because I believed it was very, very important for the United States to develop a plan to secure its cyberspace from terrorism. And the president had asked me to do that. I did it. I didn’t get it done until February of 2003. Here it is: The National Plan to Secure Cyberspace, which the president thanked me for effusively. I wouldn’t have been able to do this — important document if I had quit on the date that you suggest. And so there’s no inconsistency. I said the things that I was told to say.
Russert then asked: “But if you were willing to go forward, and, as you say, ‘spin’ on behalf of the president, then why shouldn’t people now think that this book is also spin? Why should people believe you?”
To this Clarke replied: “Because I have no obligation anymore to spin.”
This is as much as to say, “For ‘spin,’ read ‘lie’: I was lying then; I’m not lying now.” But of course this is not at all how the thing works. The obligation of collective responsibility in government, which is really what Clarke, citing Pat Buchanan, is appealing to here, means that, whatever your differences with the government beforehand, once a decision is taken it is your decision too; once a statement is made it is your statement, and you must stand by it forever afterwards unless you are prepared to resign from the government before putting your name to it, as it were, by continuing to serve once the decision is taken or the statement made. Only that is the honorable course. Any private views of your own as to the urgency of your task or the indispensability of yourself in performing it, even apart from the obnoxious self-conceit involved, are irrelevant.
But Clarke appears to suppose that his limited obligation to “spin” means only that he had to say what he was told to say while on the government’s payroll but became free to contradict himself once he returned to private life. In fact, the obligation of service in a position of trust does not and cannot mean this. If it did it would be a liar’s charter — which is of course what Clarke wants it to be both for Bush and for himself. Power excuses falsehood. Out of power, you can finally tell the truth. You can believe me now, he intends to say, because I no longer have any obligation to anyone but myself, though why looking out for number one — as the newly-minted best-selling author is unquestionably doing — instead of (ostensibly) the nation’s security should be taken as a guarantor of the self-interested one’s veracity is anyone’s guess.
Actually, we know why he thinks this, and how it is that he thinks he can make us think it. It is because of the therapeutic assumption that honesty is a matter of psychology rather than loyalty. If you assume, as our therapeutic culture tends to do, that truth is always and everywhere psychological truth — what you really think as opposed to what, under the various pressures of public utterance, you only say you think — then it is natural also to assume that you can negate a lie by revealing what you really thought at the time you told it. But a lie is an existential act, a permanent and an irrevocable decision to be disloyal either to oneself (as Clarke now says he was in 2002) or to those to whom one has bound oneself in trust for the performance of some collective enterprise (as Clarke now is). It is a decision to commit treachery and falsehood which becomes defining of who one is.
But that’s all right too when you’re appealing, as Clarke is, to the celebrity as well as the therapeutic culture. The media lionize him as they would any apostate government official who could be portrayed, in terms of their self-mythologization as the uncoverers of the truths behind government falsehoods, as a “whistle-blower.” In doing so, however, they create a powerful incentive for such whistle-blowers to come forward, particularly when they have books to sell, and be made into instant celebrities. This is another thing which, like their political biases, the media can never acknowledge, namely that they are pursuing their own self-interest in providing a forum for the likes of Clarke to make accusations against the former colleagues who trusted him. That he is a liar and a traitor to those who trusted him only makes him more attractive as a celebrity — like Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair who are likewise using the notoriety gained by their bad behavior to sell books, though with rather less success, I believe. But then, without honor, what is left to us except celebrity?
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic.