In his elegiaic meditation in Thursday’s New York Times on Scooter Libby and the White House he served, David Brooks, a conservative, showed he’d like to think the best of both of them. He managed that with Libby — “You can convince me that Libby is guilty, but I’ll always believe he’s a good man.” The White House was a harder nut to crack, and the best Brooks could do was try to mitigate its behavior by recalling its upbringing: “When you think back to the White House of 2003, the period the trial explores, you will discover a White House consumed by a feverish sense of mission. Staff members in those days went to work wondering whether this would be the day they would die. There was a sense that any day a bomb might wipe out downtown Washington. Senior officials were greeted each morning by intense intelligence briefings. On June 14, 2003, for example, Libby received a briefing with 27 items and 11 pages of terrorist threats. Someone once told me that going from the president’s daily briefing to the next event on Mr. Bush’s schedule, which might be a photo-op with a sports team, was like leaving ’24’ and stepping into ‘Sesame Street.’ No wonder administration officials were corporate on the outside but frantic within.”

You have to wonder–how many of those threats covering 11 briefing pages on June 14, 2003, were real and how many were rubbish, either the usual rubbish that every administration has to wade through or rubbish buffed and massaged and passed upward by subordinates who knew it was wanted at the top? How many of those threats would have seemed not nearly so threatening to a White House with more wise old hands than those President Bush assembled? 

Last October I wrote a column about John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State who reasoned in a Foreign Affairs essay that government is incapable of keeping terrorists entirely at bay, that since they haven’t struck the U.S. since 9/11 it’s likely there are none trying to strike us. Mueller proposed that the terrorist threat “has been massively exaggerated.” 

It’s old hat to accuse the White House of scaring the bejabbers out of us just to keep us in line. But even if Mueller’s right, nobody in the 2003 White House that Brooks described would have thought so at the time. Mitigation of the Bush presidency begins with the generous idea that the people making the terrible decisions were terrified themselves.