Making a Terrorism Czar

Conservative Side Showed in Youth




















By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  3/29/2004

The short-haired young man in the three-piece suit, standing before a sea of longhaired classmates in the Boston Latin School of the late '60s, knew exactly what he wanted to do.

One of the select students who made it to Latin, where he wowed classmates with his smooth speeches and nuanced arguments, Richard A. Clarke wanted to work for the government, as he once put it, to answer President John F. Kennedy's call for his generation to serve the country.

"It's never been my intent to do anything else," he told his alma mater's alumni magazine two years ago.

But Clarke, the former White House terrorism czar who is now at the heart of a political uproar over his accusation that President Bush paid too little attention to terrorism until it was too late, never saw himself as partisan. After serving Republican and Democratic administrations over 30 years in government, he said in the interview with the alumni magazine: "I don't get attacked by Republicans or Democrats. I think everybody realizes that I'm not a horrible creature, and I'm not a partisan figure."

But now, Republicans are picking over his past, seeking to discredit the 53-year-old native of Lower Mills as he argues that Bush and his aides came into office with a sluggish response to the Al Qaeda terrorist network and too eagerly sought to connect Iraq with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They have cast him as a self-promoter trying to hawk his book, "Against All Enemies," a disgruntled employee kept out of high-level meetings, and a supporter of Senator John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Clarke's publicist declined to make him available for an interview.

Former classmates, many of whom have kept in touch with him well after the lanky carrot top and star debater in the forensics society left Boston, say that if anything, Clarke's politics lean to the conservative side. They described the young man as a serious student who impressed teachers, a careful researcher who trounced opponents in debates, and a budding Republican who argued in the late '60s, as the Vietnam War grew increasingly unpopular, that the United States should spend more money on military foreign aid.

"He was fiercely conservative at a time when just about everyone in Boston was a Democrat," said Larry DiCara, the former president of the Boston City Council who graduated from Boston Latin in 1967, a year before Clarke. "In a city and at a school where most everyone thought of themselves as a Democrat, he didn't. I'm amazed he worked for [President] Clinton."

An only child who lost his father at a young age and whose mother supported him on her nurse's salary, Clarke stood out as a bright pupil at Charles H. Taylor School in Mattapan.

He received admission to Boston Latin in seventh grade, and over the years, he won accolades, wrote for the school newspaper, attended forums on world politics, and spent school vacations and countless other hours preparing for debates, in which he often took conservative positions, his friends said.

"I would swear he was a Republican," said Arnie Waters, a dealer in rare coins who competed with Clarke on the debating team. "There was a lot of motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag. But it seemed he wanted to go into government because he thought it was something one ought to do, not for politics."

After serving under six presidents, Clarke told the alumni magazine in 2002: "For me, it doesn't really matter whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat. I work for the president, if the president wants me to work for him."

Clarke, who is unmarried and lives in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., has long received plaudits as a diligent, highly effective bureaucrat with equal regard on both sides of the aisle.

He has said he was a registered Republican, but in recent years has been unenrolled. An admirer of former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Clarke seemed especially impressed with Bill Clinton, whose analytical command of the issues rivaled his own.

"Clinton sought to hold every issue before him like a Rubik's Cube, examining it from every angle to the point of distraction for his staff," Clarke wrote admiringly, later saying he often wondered how different the world would be if Clinton, not Bush, had been president on Sept. 11, 2001.

Like Clinton, Clarke had been a young policy wonk, a precocious student educated and analytical beyond his years, according to his Boston friends.

"He was the only kid on the MBTA reading Foreign Affairs and the Congressional Record," said Boston Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis, who often rode with Clarke to school and thought of him as a Republican in the tradition of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal on domestic issues and a conservative on foreign affairs. "He was obsessed with politics, fascinated with foreign affairs, and deeply interested in history. But he struck me as more interested in policy specifics than ideology."

As a senior, Clarke won scholarship money to attend the University of Pennsylvania, but even with that, plans to work in Philadelphia, and the money earned by his mother, he did not have enough. A history teacher at Boston Latin paid for Clarke's train ticket to visit the university and a local real-estate developer, who took the young man under his wing, helped Clarke make ends meet in his four years at Penn.

Clarke began his government career in 1973, as a nuclear weapons analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Five years later, he earned a master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went on to become deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence in the Reagan administration, and served on the National Security Council for the past three presidents.

In 1998, Clinton appointed Clarke as the nation's counterterrorism chief and he continued in that position through the Bush administration, until last March.

Now, with his critical testimony last week before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, his dramatic apology to the families of the attacks' victims, and his book rocketing to the top of the bestseller lists, Clarke is at the center of a Washington firestorm.

On Friday, Republican senators sought to declassify earlier testimony by Clarke that they said contradicted his criticism of Bush. In Boston, the FBI has rebutted the assertion in his book that Al Qaeda operatives sneaked into the city as stowaways on an Algerian liquefied natural gas tanker.

But he retains the respect of many who knew him growing up. Last year, the Latin School named him its "distinguished graduate of the year."

"I would say he has lived up to everyone's expectations," said David Weiner, head of Boston Latin School Association.

For many of his friends, the expectation was that Clarke would always stand up for his convictions, living up to the quote by the Italian poet Dante that he used in his high school yearbook: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those, who in a time of great crisis, maintain their neutrality."


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

Copyright, The Boston Globe