WASHINGTON — Follow the bouncing story line. Richard Clarke, the White House former antiterrorism tsar, wasn't in the White House antiterror loop, Vice President Dick Cheney says.
No, wait, he was in the loop, says National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice; he is just wrong about what was going on in the loop.
But, truth be told, it doesn't matter whether he was in or out of the loop because, according to Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and the White House, and various voices on the right, he is a disloyal, lying war profiteer.
If you've forgotten what it looks like when the wheels come off an administration, you're seeing it happen before your eyes.
The double-talk emitting from the White House and the Capitol this past week has been truly entertaining. The comic highlight might have come when 9/11 panel member and former Illinois Gov. James Thompson questioned Mr. Clarke's "morality and candor" for not criticizing the Bush administration when Clarke was still a member of the Bush team. "What it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America."
Pity Mr. Thompson, who is apparently the only politician in America who has never heard of spin.
But the entertainment isn't the real story here. Faced with a raft of damaging allegations from Clarke's book and testimony - covering everything from ill- preparedness on 9/11 to misguided choices in Iraq - the White House and its defenders have fallen back on this city's favorite game: blame the accuser. Clarke was angry he didn't get the promotion he wanted, they say. He's a friend of John Kerry's foreign policy team. He's just looking to sell his book.
Back in the good old days - about six years ago - this was called the "nuts and sluts" strategy, and the Clinton administration used it to try to calm the numerous "bimbo eruptions" that hit it. The point then, as it is today, was to shift the discussion away from the allegations and focus on the credibility of the person who's come forward - change the topic among this town's chatterers from the substance of the allegations to their source.
The press and the public didn't appreciate the game then. The test before them today is to apply the same standards to this White House that they did to the Clinton era.
Yes, Clarke did a bit of grandstanding before the 9/11 panel last week. And, yes, there are reports that he sometimes doesn't play well with others. But he also raised some very serious questions. Did the Bush White House, for whatever reason, disregard advice on dealing with Al Qaeda? Did the current administration focus too intently on Iraq even when there was no evidence that the country was involved in the 9/11 attacks?
The point here should not be to look for a scapegoat for the terrorist attacks. There is no proof that anyone could have prevented them. But between the inconsistent stories coming out of the Bush administration and the seriousness of the allegations being leveled, the response from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has to be more than, "Well, that's not what he said before, and he's a jerk." That, however, is essentially the message.
Ms. Rice, who admits that President Bush was eager to look at Iraq after the attacks, says she'd really love to testify about what she knows, but there is no precedent for a national security adviser testifying publicly at such a hearing. She'll be happy to sit down with the panel again, she says, just not in public, not under oath.
Why someone would want to testify specifically not under oath is anyone's guess, of course.
The White House maintains it's about separation of powers and how it's important that an aide to the president not be forced to answer questions about the private advice she gives. But surely an agreement could be reached about what would and wouldn't be open for discussion - particularly sensitive matters and those concerning national security - and most constitutional scholars say politics are the real motivation.
There's more than enough irony to go around here.
But the biggest irony of all is the fact that the group that wanted to "restore honor and integrity" to the White House now finds itself looking awfully similar to the group it rousted from the place - falling back on character attacks and legalese to get out of a jam.
The administration still has time to correct this situation, but it needs to do something fast. Letting Rice testify is a start. It won't solve everything, and there may be some irreversible damage for the administration, but it's the right thing to do politically and the administration owes the nation that much.