LOPEZ: “Suffice it to say, had Condi Rice stolen classified material and hid the purloined goods under a nearby construction trailer, the investigation would still be ongoing.” Why is this an important point for history?
KNOTT: The fact that a former national security adviser to President Clinton was attempting to cleanse the record re the Clinton administration and al-Qaeda is remarkable, and deserving of more attention than it received from either the press or various investigatory bodies. Again, had Condi Rice or Stephen Hadley attempted this, we would still be hearing about it. It is interesting to note that the Bush administration took far more “heat” for its failure to prevent 9/11 than did the Clinton administration, despite the fact that bin Laden and his cronies had been busy at work at least since 1996. I think both President Bush and President Clinton did not properly educate the American public on the threat that al-Qaeda presented in the period prior to 9/11, but Clinton’s attempt to say that the Bush administration dropped the ball and that he had aggressively pursued al-Qaeda just doesn’t stand up. Clinton’s own FBI director, Louis Freeh, dismisses this as nonsense. Supposedly there was a “declaration of war” issued by CIA director George Tenet against al-Qaeda, but many officials in the U.S. government were unaware of this “declaration.” The Clinton administration’s failure to respond to the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 puts all of this in its proper perspective.
: Why do you attribute courage to President Bush in regard to signing statements?
KNOTT: Because these were overt attempts to stop Congress from inserting poison pills and including legislative vetoes (which were declared unconstitutional back in the 1980s) in massive pieces of legislation. These actions infringed on the president’s Article II powers and made a mockery of the notion of the rule of law. President Obama has claimed that any White House statement regarding pending legislation can be interpreted as a de facto signing statement, and this strikes me as both somewhat duplicitous and more threatening to the concept of the rule of law than anything Bush did with his signing statements. The Obama posture is much more open-ended; at least Bush was up front about his objections. By the way, Obama promised not to use signing statements, so in a sense I guess he kept his promise, but I don’t think this is exactly what his supporters had in mind.
LOPEZ: What do you mean by the criminalization of American politics and how was W. a victim of it?
KNOTT: It’s not enough to defeat your opponents — it’s better to put them in jail. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but I do think that during the period when the independent-counsel law was in effect, both parties used this law to go after targets of opportunity and score political points. We can be thankful that that law is dead, but you certainly saw a similar phenomenon at work during the whole Valerie Plame saga, which was a waste of time and resources. If the issue was the revelation of Plame’s identity, then why wasn’t the person who revealed her identity, Richard Armitage, ever prosecuted? Plame and Joseph Wilson were hoping to bring down Karl Rove, who they assumed was the source of Plame’s “outing.” I also think the whole contretemps over the firing of the U.S. attorneys was purely political, again designed to get Karl Rove, and one that generated a costly investigation that led to no criminal prosecutions. Politics is an ugly business, but I would rather have the friction and resultant detritus of politics than a system that attempts to resolve all of its problems by resorting to the judiciary.
LOPEZ: “George W. Bush’s religious views were no more overt or extreme than Jimmy Carter’s, yet somehow they generated far more discomfort than Carter’s.” What do you make of this? Has this, too, only gotten worse? I’m thinking here about the freedom-of-religion debate we’re having at the moment.
KNOTT: It has gotten worse. It’s all part of the attempt to remove any religious elements from the public square. This is part of the quiet constitutional revolution I alluded to earlier — it is assumed in far too many quarters that our public life should be “scrubbed clean” of any tincture of religiosity. Bush wore his faith on his sleeve, and that just did not go down well on both coasts. Carter was equally forward about the importance of his faith, and I just don’t recall it generating the same amount of discomfort. Bush’s answer in one of the 2000 presidential debates that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher confirmed in the eyes of many that this man was not that bright, religion being equated with superstition. It’s sad that many Americans have come to accept such a high wall of separation between religion and the civil life of this country. It’s also remarkably ahistorical as well, in the light of the critical role religion played in the revolutionary period, and in fueling the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the suffragette movement, and the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — not to mention the role it played in the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Woodrow Wilson. So you couple Bush’s religious beliefs with his Texas twang and his propensity to mangle the English language, and the assumption was that this man was intellectually challenged. Nothing could be further from the truth.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.