It is said that every country has the government it deserves. Do we really deserve to have Republican and Democratic administrations alike meet their critics less with factual refutation than with indiscriminate, often mendacious attacks on the critics' credibility, character, and motivations? Are the American people so averse to what Learned Hand called "the intolerable labor of thought" that the surest way to win their votes is to resort to crude character assassination? Or have our leaders let the transitory joys of mudslinging blind them to the strategic advantage of showing some class?

Consider the Bush administration's massive counterattack on Richard Clarke, using the same basic M.O. as in its previous trashing of such critics as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV. Choosing the March 22 Rush Limbaugh show as the forum for his opening salvo, Vice President Cheney gave a deceptive answer to the very first question. Asked why the Bush administration had kept Clarke "on the counter-terrorism team when you all assumed office in January of 2001," Cheney said: "He was moved out of the counter-terrorism business over to the cyber-security side of things." But as Cheney well knew, Clarke was kept on as the White House's top counter-terrorism official until well after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Cheney added that Clarke "wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff"—a statement so misleading that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice later had to correct it.

White House officials implied for almost a week that Clarke may have fabricated a September 12, 2001, conversation with President Bush in the White House Situation Room. According to Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, Bush urged Clarke repeatedly and "testily" to look for evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks, despite Clarke's assurance that there was no real evidence of any Iraq-Qaeda links. Administration officials said that Bush did not recall this conversation and that there was no record placing him in the Situation Room that day. But, in fact, Bush did urge Clarke to look for an Iraq connection, as Rice eventually admitted.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage contradicted Rice's own claim—a response on the merits, at least—that the administration had developed a strategy including "sufficient military options to remove the Taliban regime" in the spring and summer of 2001.

The trashing of Dick Clarke was not in the same league as the Clinton White House's smearing of Paula Jones ("drag a dollar bill through a trailer park"); Monica Lewinsky (the "stalker"); Kenneth Starr (the politically motivated, sex-obsessed, riverside hymn-singer); and the rest of the "vast right-wing conspiracy." But the Clarke episode exemplifies the sad state of our political discourse at a time that cries out for dispassionate analysis of how to stop the next 9/11, not partisan finger-pointing over the last one. The closer that critics come to revealing unwelcome truths—whether about President Clinton's perjuries or about the Bush team's initial imperviousness to warnings about the urgency of the terrorist threat—the uglier the attacks become.

This is not to adopt the purist view that critics' credibility and motivations should be off-limits. Counterattacking attackers is fair game, especially when the critic's rhetorical recklessness, personal animus, partisanship, and self-glorification are as transparent as Clarke's. These qualities detract from his book's otherwise cogent presentation of the case that the Bush team was irrationally obsessed with Iraq and (as I am increasingly inclined to fear) the invasion of Iraq has made America less safe.

But the best response even to overheated attacks would be honest and factual rebuttal, not the blunderbuss demonization that has become standard-operating procedure. A dollop of dignity would also be welcome. White House press secretary Scott McClellan's sneer at "Dick Clarke's American grandstand" was clever but not exactly presidential.

Lest I seem incorrigibly naive, I note that the assault on Clarke was far from being a political triumph: After 10 days of thrust and counterthrust, Bush was so damaged that he was forced to cave in abjectly to demands that Rice give sworn public testimony to the bipartisan commission investigating the September 11 attacks. In this regard, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist did Bush no favor when he upped the ante by confusing spin with perjury and suggesting that Clarke had lied under oath.

The president and his executive privilege just might have taken less of a beating had the response to Clarke gone more like this:

Richard Clarke served his country for many years with extraordinary dedication. But it is deeply irresponsible for him to create the false impression that if only we had listened to him, this administration could have prevented the September 11 attacks. Even Mr. Clarke himself admits—very quietly—that immediate adoption of every one of his recommendations would have made no difference. His claim that we did not make Al Qaeda our most urgent priority before 9/11 adds little to the president's own statement in December 2001 (to The Washington Post), that he did not feel a "sense of urgency" about Al Qaeda then and was more focused on other threats.

Mr. Clarke credits the Clinton administration with worrying more about Al Qaeda than we did. But worrying is not a policy. Despite the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the bombings of our East Africa embassies in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000, the Clinton administration took no effective action. It blew up some empty tents in Afghanistan and retreated under fire from Somalia. We in the Bush administration wish that we had moved more rapidly against Al Qaeda. But by September 11, we had— as Mr. Clarke himself has previously stated—authorized a "fivefold" increase in the CIA's covert action budget "to go after Al Qaeda" and "changed the strategy from one of rollback with Al Qaeda over the course of five years ... to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of Al Qaeda."

Mr. Clarke has said that "the reason I am strident in my criticism" of almost everything President Bush has done is his strong (although previously undisclosed) view that one of those actions—the liberation of Iraq—has hurt the war against terrorism. Mr. Clarke is entitled to his opinion. But disagreement with our post-9/11 Iraq policy cannot justify distortion of our pre-9/11 Qaeda policy. And we are convinced that he is wrong about Iraq— as are many independent analysts and some former Clinton administration officials who are more expert on strategic issues than Mr. Clarke is. He virtually ignores the clear benefits of removing the most dangerous tyrant in the world's most dangerous region, a man who had used chemical weapons against his own people and sought far more devastating nuclear and biological weapons that might someday be used against America.

Mr. Clarke's attacks are so riddled with inaccuracies and exaggerations, so inconsistent with his own prior statements, and so clearly designed to help the president's political adversaries as to cast doubt on his credibility and motivations. Consider his claim that during a January 2001 briefing on Al Qaeda, Condi Rice's "facial expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term before." In fact, she had used the term, quite publicly. He could have looked it up.

Perhaps Mr. Clarke's judgment has been warped by resentment of Rice and others who denied him the higher-level status that he considered his due and failed to stroke his legendary ego. Perhaps he sensed that a strident Bush-bashing book would sell more copies and be more helpful to John Kerry's campaign than a thoughtful and sober critique. In any event, we would respect him more if he had voiced his objections on Iraq internally and then resigned in protest. Instead, he has waited until the heat of the presidential campaign to launch a vitriolic attack calculated to damage the president and enrich himself. This is not a stand on principle. It is partisan warfare. And it is a breach of trust.

Various administration officials have made most or all of these points at one time or another. But they have devalued their case by mixing in deceptive diversions, overheated suggestions that Clarke lied under oath, and other Carvillean drek. It hasn't worked very well. They should try a different approach.

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Correction: European Commission President Romano Prodi was misquoted in my March 20 column (and elsewhere) in reliance on an erroneous account by Agence France-Presse. What Prodi actually said, in an interview with the newspaper La Stampa, was: "It is clear that force alone cannot win the fight against terrorism"

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