Watch CBSN Live

War Means Never Saying I'm Sorry

This Against the Grain commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

Richard Clarke's apology before the 9/11 commission is giving President Bush's defenders conniptions. Big time.

Majority Leader Bill Frist had his fit on the Senate floor: "Mr. Clarke's theatrical apology on behalf of the nation was not his right, his privilege or his responsibility. In my view it was not an act of humility, but an act of supreme arrogance and manipulation."

Just about every conservative writer worth his Edmund Burke collection has taken an outraged, apoplectic swing at Clarke's apology. The White House and Republicans, of course, uncorked a full attack on Clarke's credibility. But there's something about the apology that is profoundly bugging the conservative intelligentsia.

In fact, if I hadn't sworn off vast conspiracy theories years ago, I might think there was a vast right wing conspiracy here -- the denunciations of Clarke's apology were that similar.

Trending News

The two most alike come from two of the smartest conservative writers around, William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer.

In The Weekly Standard Kristol wrote a piece called, "The Sorry Mr. Clarke."

"Richard Clarke can apologize to anyone he likes. He could have done so sooner. And he could have done so privately. The names of those killed on 9/11 -- and, for that matter, of those killed by al Qaeda in our African embassies, on the USS Cole, and on other occasions -- have presumably been available to Clarke. Would the families of those who died have appreciated a personal letter from Clarke asking for their understanding and forgiveness? Perhaps a few would. The vast majority no doubt would have thought such an apology utterly unnecessary and inappropriate.

Clarke, who worked tirelessly against al Qaeda during the 1990s, is not responsible for the deaths on 9/11. Indeed, the families of those who died surely appreciate Clarke's great efforts, first to thwart al Qaeda, and then to bring the killers of their loved ones to justice. Surely they know of Clarke's sympathy for their loss. Surely the only apology that is owed -- though it would presumably be rejected by the families -- would be an apology from Osama bin Laden, just prior to his execution.

But Clarke's grandstanding did please its true intended audience. The writers at The New York Times loved it…

Richard Clarke's pseudo-apology has cheapened the public discourse."

Krauthammer's "Phony Apology" was published in The Washington Post:

"Indeed, one has to admire it -- the most cynical and brilliantly delivered apology in recent memory: Richard Clarke using the nationally televised Sept. 11 commission hearings to address the families of the victims. 'Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you.'

Many were moved. I was not. For two reasons. First, the climactic confession "I failed you" -- the one that packed the emotional punch -- was entirely disingenuous. Clarke did the mea culpa and then spent the next 21/2 hours of testimony -- as he did on every talk show known to man and in the 300 pages of his book -- demonstrating how everyone else except him had failed. And they failed because the stubborn, ignorant, ideologically blinkered, poll-driven knaves and fools he had been heroically fighting against within the government would not listen to him.

Message: They failed you.

Second, by blaming the government for the deaths of their loved ones, Clarke deftly endorsed the grotesque moral inversion by which those who died on Sept. 11 are victims of . . . George Bush. This is about as morally obscene as the implication (made by, among others, the irrepressible Howard Dean) that those who died in the Madrid bombings were also victims of George Bush.

This is false. They were all victims of al Qaeda and al Qaeda alone.
If an apology is owed, it is owed to the entire country and not just the families, and it is owed by the murderers who planned and carried out Sept. 11.

…Clarke's clever pseudo-apology -- we failed, meaning, they failed -- played perfectly to the families in the gallery, who applauded and warmly embraced the very man who for 12 years was the U.S. government official most responsible for preventing a Sept. 11. A neat trick."

Both Kristol and Krauthammer quoted this exchange Clarke had with former Senator Slade Gorton:

Gorton: Assuming that the recommendations that you made on January 25th of 2001, based on Delenda, based on Blue Sky, including aid to the Northern Alliance, which had been an agenda item at this point for two and a half years without any action, assuming that there had been more Predator reconnaissance missions, assuming that that had all been adopted say on January 26th, year 2001, is there the remotest chance that it would have prevented 9/11?

Clarke: No.

The idea seems to be that since Clarke admits that the policies he proposed would not have prevented 9/11, his apology was phony and cheap. I'm not sure I follow.

George Will, William Buckley and the Op-ed of the The Wall Street Journal all offered parallel anti-apologies. Great minds thinking alike? Hmm.

So what is it exactly that so infuriates these conservative intellectuals? Is it that the apology implies proper government should be able to prevent tragedies such as 9/11, something conservatives believe is silly and misleading? Is it that they believe that terror warriors who apologize will be too soft to do what it takes to win the war on terror (like invading Iraq)? Is it that they think Clarke hit the mark in the amorphous realm of spin, p.r. and public opinion? Is it just plain politics? Is it simply that they all think Clarke is an ass?

I don't really have a clue. But it's fun to see these guys in such a lockstep lather.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of, based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones.

By Dick Meyer