During tough times like these, it helps for White House staffers to have such a willing media ally as Fox News. And if they and Fox News execs can pal around socially too, well, that just makes it easier.
Under fire from former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, who charges the incoming Bush administration did almost nothing in 2001 to respond to warnings about the al Qaeda threat, the White House tried to undermine his credibility by turning his own words against him. The White House, well into Plan C of this week's damage control, took the extraordinary step Wednesday of outing Clarke as the source for a background briefing he gave to reporters during the summer of 2002. In it, Clarke, playing the role of the good soldier, complimented the administration for its efforts to battle terrorism. Fox ran with the transcript, and other news organizations followed.
While Clarke was testifying, Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who refuses to testify before the independent commission in public, but can't seem to pass an open microphone this week without commenting on the administration's efforts to fight terrorism, called reporters into her office to highlight the discrepancy between Clarke's charges and his 2002 backgrounder. "There are two very different stories here," she said. "These stories can't be reconciled."
Within hours, Republican commissioners on the 9/11 panel tried to make hay out of the Fox scoop, with former Illinois governor James Thompson waving around the Fox transcripts suggesting Clarke had been caught in a lie. Clarke calmly explained: "I mean, what you're suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that's somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect."
The Washington Post today reports that Clarke's turn in the spotlight, "was a masterful bit of showmanship."
Nonetheless, the Bush White House and Fox News had done their best. And that evening at the annual Radio-Television Correspondents Association dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, the NSC's top flak, Rice's press secretary Sean McCormack, was happily lolling around the Fox News tables.