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Richard Clarke, Action Hero By: David Skinner
Weekly Standard | Monday, April 26, 2004


Hollywood hates Bush. Richard Clarke hates Bush. Is it any wonder that Sony Pictures has bought the rights to Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke's indignant I-was-there-so-I-should-know polemical memoir?

At Sony, John Calley will be responsible for overseeing the project's development. "You could shoot the first 56 pages and have an extraordinary half of a movie," he told the New York Times, "then it goes on to more enthralling stuff."

A remarkable suggestion, and reason enough to devote this column to John Calley and Richard Clarke jointly. Good job, boys. (Confetti, streamers, so on.)

Now, the first 56 pages of Against All Enemies are dominated by 9/11, and Richard Clarke's account of 9/11--the actual day--is dominated by Richard Clarke. To the point where Sony might want to model the movie's title after such author-centric formulations as Brahm Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Forget Against All Enemies; this should be Richard Clarke's 9/11.

To joke like this is to immediately see the absurdity of Clarke's breathless moment-by-moment dramatization of the day al-Qaeda hijacked four planes, destroyed the World Trade Center, crashed into the Pentagon, and killed 3,000 Americans before a watching, horrified world. Because in Clarke's telling, September 11 was really about him.

This much can be said: He goes a long way to make himself worthy of a title role. With all the chaos and calamity unfolding around him, Richard Clarke cuts a striking figure, like someone ripped from the pages of political thriller, or rather someone ripped from the pages of an amateur political thriller.

"It's a self-implementing policy," he says at one point, never too rushed for a witticism, not even on September 11, "or as you guys from the Pentagon would say, a self-licking ice cream cone."

And this Clarke character is lightning quick in his thinking.

"We got the passenger manifests from the airlines. We recognize some names, Dick. They're al-Qaeda," says Frank Miller of the FBI to Clarke, who is running the emergency response from the White House.

"I was stunned," Clarke then says, "not that the attack was al-Qaeda but that there were al-Qaeda operatives on board aircraft using names that FBI knew were al-Qaeda.

"'How the f-ck did they get on board then?' I demanded."

For Richard Clarke, the implications of such a statement don't need to be unpacked. He doesn't ask Miller what he means; he doesn't ask if these names were on a watch list, or were names the FBI had learned about too recently to disseminate; he doesn't imagine any bureaucratic disconnect or ineffective surveillance kept the knowledge of these names from resulting in the barring of these terrorists from airplanes. Decades of government work under his belt and he imagines that one hand -- of course! -- knows what the other is doing, in even so complex a system of organization.

The movie will surely be one of those where characters (the smart ones anyway) are so intimate with each other's background and instincts that they easily predict the actions of their friends and enemies. Late on the night of 9/11, says Clarke, "I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq."

Other characters are introduced with these pitch-perfect thumbnail sketches that lay out their bona fides or deficiencies: "I had known Dick Cheney for a dozen years and for that long been fascinated at how complex a person he was. On the surface, he was quiet and soft-spoken. Below that surface calm ran strong, almost extreme beliefs. He had been one of the five most radical conservatives in the Congress."

Where my BS detector goes off while reading this passage is at the number 5, as in "the five most radical members of the Congress." To introduce information in the course of an action narrative is to suggest its presence in the mind of character. Hero-narrator Clarke makes it sound as if his brain calls up such information at will. Of course, what Clarke's doing is spicing the narrative years later -- with an Almanac of American Politics or some other reference work at his disposal -- but in the book he's a cool customer sizing up everyone around him, accessing everything he knows. And he does know everything.

Sometimes this omniscience turns to know-it-all-ness. In a White House bunker, the vice president, Mrs. Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice are holed up. The vice president complains that the "comms in this place are terrible."

Clarke replies: "'Now you know why I wanted the money for a new bunker?' I could not resist. The President had canceled my plans for a replacement facility."

Another of Clarke's annoying stylistic tics is his marked preference for official lingo, preferably shortened to make everyone sound clipped, tired, and cynical. It helps with the saw-it-all-coming tone, though it also leads to a few lines that will have to be cut from the movie script, as when Clarke announces in the situation room that "POTUS is inbound Offutt." Had he said simply that the president was flying into "Offutt," I might not have laughed.

Another howler appears on page 25, when Paul Kurtz, also of the White House counterterrorism team, is on the phone with Verizon talking about what to do with the stock exchange: "I asked Kurtz to put them on hold for a minute, so I could give him what in the White House we call guidance." Yeah, the White House is a world unto itself, they have different words for everything.

And what a memory he has! Writing his book years later, Clarke can still recall every scene, statement, word, and inflection from September 11. He takes part in dozens of conversations with at least a dozen people over the course of a grueling day, and yet not a word escaped him when it came time to put pen to paper.

And it's not as if at the end of September 11, he immediately started taking notes, not a tough guy like Clarke. Sent home to get some shut-eye, he's up "an hour later. . . . I had to get back to the White House and begin planning to prevent follow-on attacks. I found my Secret Service-issued .357 sidearm, thrust it in my belt, and went back into the night, back to the West Wing."

Barbromter: For turning himself into an action hero, instead of just telling it straight with all the limitations that time and humility impose, Dick Clarke gets three Barbra Streisands. For eating it up, John Calley also gets three.

Grader's Comment: Hollywood hasn't produced a single war movie with the country in the grip of a life-or-death struggle with a shadowy enemy who draws sustenance from some of the most horrible regimes on earth. And while the likes of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein fail to capture the imaginations of big studios, Dick Clarke's told-you-so, a valet's view of presidential leadership does. Good grief.


Stardumb Notes:

David Byrne of the '80s art-rock band the Talking Heads (Byrne was in fact head Head) has produced an anthem for the Republican party. It appears on his new album Grown Backwards. Actually, it's a spoof, an ironic anthem.

So when Byrne sings, "Like birds upon a fence / like birds upon a fence," he means that ironically, as in "not at all like birds upon a fence."

Never much a friend of the GOP, Byrne once papered Manhattan with posters of Ronald Reagan labeled with the word "ACTOR." Note, again, the understated criticism. And during the run-up to the war in Iraq, Byrne acted as spokesman for Musicians United to Win Publicity, which included the unlikely peacenik Jay-Z, a rapper who at the time said, "All I know is, in war, like, everyone loses." Apparently, Mr. Z was not being ironic, even though he is better known for rapping that he'll "throw a Molotov cocktail through your momma's momma's house."

As to Byrne's GOP theme song, "Empire," the title unmistakably captures its irate and ironic spirit. Slow, churchy organ notes open and Byrne sings of "a democratic fever for national defense," which he thinks was exactly not how Americans should have felt after 9/11. The song continues ceremoniously with Byrne announcing in the following verse: "I am a mountain, I am a mountain."

Get it? America is so small, he's saying, it's not a mountain at all. (Remember, you have to read the quotes ironically.) Byrne also imputes to the United States an unhealthy fondness for business -- "what's good for business / is good for us all" -- and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality: "The weak among us perish / the strong alone survive." Indeed, "Empire" skips from cliché to cliché. Then again, what good anthem doesn't? Okay, when we say "good," we are being, well, you know....


David Skinner is an assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard.


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