WASHINGTON — Anthony Lake thinks it's his former Senate interrogators who should be on trial - not himself.
In withdrawing his nomination to be director of Central Intelligence, the president's ex-national security adviser is criticizing the Senate confirmation process in perhaps the most profound way at his disposal. In doing so, he is repeating the lament of a generation of embattled nominees: Senate hearings for top posts can be mean, arbitrary, irrelevant, and politically partisan in the extreme.
It's a charge that the White House and its supporters are likely to talk about often in coming days, both to defend Mr. Lake's dignity and to try to head off similar treatment of Labor Secretary-designate Alexis Herman, who hasn't yet run the Senate gantlet.
"I think it was a case of character assassination. I think the [Intelligence] committee should apologize to Lake," Senate minority leader Thomas Daschle said March 18.
But whether this represents a new state of things in Washington remains an open question.
It's true that many critics of the system say it's gotten worse in recent years. All nominees aren't mistreated the same, they say. Instead, isolated nominees who appear particularly controversial - or vulnerable - are picked off like lone caribous who straggled too far behind the herd.
"Ordinarily I think the confirmation process works pretty well," said Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana in a broadcast interview. "But when the hatchets are out, as they were in the case of Lake, it can be very tough."
Republicans date the coarsening of the confirmation process to Reagan-era nominee Robert Bork, whose chance to sit on the Supreme Court was defeated by a Democratic-controlled Senate in 1987.
Many GOP senators also remain angry over the treatment of the late Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, whose 1989 nomination for secretary of Defense was scuttled by allegations of personal misbehavior.
Democrats remain unrepentant about their treatment of these nominees, for the most part, saying both were controversial nominations.
And President Clinton has had his own share of nomination problems, although it's arguable that many of them stemmed from the failure of his own personnel office to thoroughly vet nominees. Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Carns withdrew his nomination to head the CIA in 1995 amid questions about whether he had violated immigration law in hiring a Filipino servant. Charges about the tax treatment of domestic help similarly sank retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman's nomination to be secretary of Defense in 1994.
Overall, however, it's not clear whether the nomination process today is actually any more brutal than it has been at times in the past, say other critics. Senate rejection of two Nixon nominees to the Supreme Court involved particularly bitter struggles, they point out.
This doesn't necessarily mean Lake is wrong in his complaints about the system. It just means that he perhaps shouldn't have been so surprised about the treatment he received.
In the confirmation process, the substance of controversy can be surprisingly beside the point, according to Robert Gates, who also underwent a tough time at the hands of the Senate before winning approval of his 1991 nomination to run the CIA.
"The confirmation process is a way of testing first of all just how badly somebody wants the job," said the former CIA head.
Senate questions may be tough and unfair. But so is life at the top of US political power.
"If you can't fight your way through the process ... my guess is you might not just do a hot job as director," said Mr. Gates.
At the time of his surprise withdrawal, Lake still appeared to have a good chance of winning eventual confirmation. But new questions about the National Security Council, and its failure to convey to the president that some of his contributors had possible foreign connections, raised the concern of yet more delay in the ex-NSC head's oft-postponed Senate dealings.
White House officials complained that Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama killed Lake's nomination by simply stalling. But some critics think Senator Shelby's questions about Lake were relevant.
"The Senate has every right to investigate these things," says Mickey Edwards, a former GOP congressmen, now at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.