The phone rang promptly at 8 a.m. A colleague in Alexandria was on the line. “The RNC is sending one of your columns to everyone,” he said. There was some concern for me in his voice.
The date was Monday, March 22. Thanks to the Web and drudgereport.com, I was about to begin my week-long career as an unwitting hit man for the right.
At first, my friend’s alarm seemed misplaced. So what, I thought. I’ve written lots of columns. The one he was referring to had focused on Richard Clarke, back in February 2003, more than a year ago. It had nothing to do with Clarke’s new book, Against All Enemies, or his fresh testimony on Capitol Hill about the Bush administration’s alleged absence of diligence in the war on terrorism.
What if a few copies of an old article were mailed around? It’s a free country.
Big mistake to disregard the amplifying power of the Net. As soon as I logged on, I noticed my inbox had overflowed with messages carrying the column’s headline: “Richard Clarke’s Legacy of Miscalculation.” As quickly as I moved them to a separate folder, more flooded in.
All this for a column with a main thrust of good riddance, penned after Clarke stepped down from his White House post. I’d written many columns about Clarke since 1998, all uniformly scornful and critical of his obsession with cyberterror. He bequeathed the nation a haystack of quotes leading idiots to believe terrorists were going to devastate us through computer networks. That, and a claim that the Freedom of Information Act was a legal impediment to the sharing of information, in need of an alteration to fix it.
No one had been particularly interested in what I’d written back then. Just mentioning anything having to do with Richard Clarke was generally enough, I found, to make the head of the average person nod with boredom.
However, the first sentence of this particular column proved to be a time bomb: “The retirement of Richard Clarke is appropriate to the reality of the war on terror.” That was what got me in trouble. Honeyed dung it was, or became, to clouds of flies on the right, buzzing mad to find a couple quarts of offal to throw on the man after the calumny of his 60 Minutes spotlight.
Late Sunday evening Bush supporters had found it through Google and started uploading to Usenet political chat groups. Soundly sleeping in Southern California, I’d been sent out as a Republican political assassin.
The Drudge Report had indeed linked to it, and the RNC had been very busy. By Monday afternoon, Rush Limbaugh had jumped on board, saying, “[T]his explains it.” Great—I had penned the Rosetta of Richard Clarke’s disgruntlement. Publishing a large excerpt on his “Essential Stack of Stuff” page, Limbaugh opined, “Maybe [Clarke] started singing this cyber song to the Bush administration, and they said, ‘This guy is a nut’ . . . He’s a discredited old guy and so now he’s trying to recapture his credit and credibility where all discredited old Democrats go . . . ” Opinionjournal.com also linked to it in a piece entitled “The Clarke Kerfuffle.”
And so the e-mail poured in, reaching out to touch me, driving home the stupidity and malevolence of the American political climate at the speed of the electrons.
“I doubt that the art of thinking can be taught at all,” wrote H.L. Mencken in 1926 in “The Fringes of Lovely Letters.” Most Americans “are just as incapable of logical thought as they are incapable of jumping over the moon.”
Confirmation, H.L., is waiting on my desktop. From both sides of the political spectrum, the missives of my fellow citizens showed no grasp of the fact that my column was written over 12 months ago. Obviously, it had been done immediately upon the occasion of Richard Clarke’s revelations, just to screw him!
Attention, my ninny countrymen! It is often good to read things like . . . the date.
As a consequence of their aphasia, it was clear I was obviously a Bush administration fixer—”vermin . . . coming out from under . . . rocks to smear [Clarke].” Or, if you stood on the other ridge, I was an honest fellow, laboring to get the real story past the spinmonger Lesley Stahl and the perfidious 60 Minutes.
The anger was instantly gripping. A prime ingredient was the rage foaming, apparently, from Democrats, who avidly read Drudge so as to be able to intimidate and beat to death troublemakers. They were so over-the-top, it was funny enough to reduce one to tetany. It’s certainly a misconception that Democrats are eloquent, sophisticated, sensitive, and therefore beyond the knavish dirt commonly attributed to the “right-wing attack dog.” Last week, I found no difference between the two.
“It is obvious that a man who has a sense of patriotism”—Clarke, my dear correspondent meant—”is being attacked by an ass, and a fop. You are another example of Total [sic] lies the likes of which the press has not seen since the days of Goebels [sic]. Do the country a favor, and kill yourself.”
Buried way at the bottom of the stack of mail was part of the explanation for some of this acid.
“I hope you didn’t mind the Drudge Report notoriety your article is now receiving. I was so distraught with the ’60 Minutes’ piece on Richard Clarke that I passed your article onto Drudge, and you’re now published on his huge web page,” wrote a stranger late Sunday night. I do believe the man meant well.
At this point I should mention that I’m a registered Democrat. In fact, it was also over a year ago when I was called a leftist puke for insinuating, in the Voice, that the Pentagon’s jumping minefield project was rotten and that “shock and awe” was the creation of a numskull, among other pieces unfriendly to the national joy that sprang from marching across the border of Iraq.
Nevertheless, through the blaze of interest ignited by Drudge and Limbaugh, “Richard Clarke’s legacy of miscalculation” was either linked to or republished hundreds of times across the blogs of the right. The effect was that of a Google bomb, a stunt of technology that put the column in second place for searches of “Richard Clarke.” In other words, if Richard Clarke had been an entry in Webster’s, “legacy of miscalculation” would have been the second definition.
“Just saw the plug by Rush . . . Congrats!” wrote a professional acquaintance with dry humor. “It is a shame, though, that your piece should be placed in the service of evil.”
Throughout Monday and Tuesday right-wing talk radio wanted me. Fox television was interested and some fellow named “Beowulf” from the Michael Savage show desired a call so listeners could “hear [my] take on this important issue.”
Around midday Monday, before grokking that it was smarter to clam up and hide rather than risk public speaking, I did a brief interview with a Pittsburgh radio station. The show’s assistant called and I told her the column had been written a year ago. “Uh, what? Oh, I see, yeah,” she said, breaking into nervous laughter.
The spot lasted about three minutes. All I had to do was mention words like “cyberattack” and “electronic infrastructure” instead of “disgruntled turncoat” and “clueless, out-of-the-loop, Demo-collaborator.” Cut to a commercial.
There was no nuance—or recognition of anything other than good or wicked—anywhere. I was supposedly the proper expert arrived just in the nick of time, someone who took Richard Clarke “to task for having the audacity to write a book critical of the President’s anti-terrorism efforts.” Or I was a GOP mouthpiece, a “loyal shameless Bush Apologist and Academic Hit Man.” Reality didn’t fit what the howling mobs wanted.
What is true is that no one cursing or cheering Richard Clarke now cared a whit about him until Sunday night two weeks ago. And he was no stranger to 60 Minutes either, warning of terror in April 2000: “What if one morning we’re told by the drug cartel in Colombia, ‘Either the United States pulls out of Colombia, either the United States stops killing the cocaine plants, or else there’ll be [a cyberattack] on Houston’?”
But maybe I am all screwed up and the people writing me weren’t taunting proof of the hegemony of the American boob. Maybe Richard Clarke is (I challenge you to say this with a straight face while looking into a mirror) a “folk hero” or part of the “revenge of democracy” said to be coming to the Bush administration.
I would be willing to bet, though, that if the Dems, of which I am one—remember—won’t fight their own battles and keep thinking that career apparatchiks bearing tattlers will win the election, they’ll be thrown to statistics and the devil when it finally arrives.