Washington Heavy-Hitters Slugfest

The one-sided slugging match between former President Bill Clinton and Fox TV newsman Chris Wallace has evolved into "he said, she said." "He" is Clinton. "She" is Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Speaking to the New York Post, Rice took issue with Clinton's angry remarks on "Fox News Sunday" in which he defended his response to the threat of al Qaeda.

Clinton said he "left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy" for his successor's team to follow. Rice told the Post: "We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al Qaeda." That's about as direct a denial as you can get. No mealy-mouthing there.

Now the argument has ratcheted up another notch with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., entering the fray. She told reporters on Capitol Hill, "I'm certain that if my husband and his national security team had been shown a classified report titled 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,' he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national security team."

Sen. Clinton was referring to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, briefing President Bush received at his Texas ranch. Until now, her husband's televised outburst Sunday seemed to be a case of a former president trying vigorously to protect his legacy from even the suggestion that he was tepid in dealing with the likes of Osama bin Laden. Political observers opined that Clinton might also have been signaling his party to defend itself equally strongly this fall against insinuations that Democrats are weak on terrorism. Legacy or politics? Or both? What was the former president up to?

Now Hillary Clinton is in the mix, and that tips the scales. She is both a candidate for re-election to the Senate and a possible contender for the presidency in 2008. So anything the senator says on this hot-button issue goes way beyond mere concern for how historians will rate her husband. She has tried to establish herself as tough on national security issues. Apparently, she is also now telling us that she would not be married to someone who is not equally as tough. No wimps in our household, she seemed to be saying.

Thomas Mann of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution said Sen. Clinton's broadside at President Bush is also intended to send a message to Democrats that "they would be crazy to concede the terrorism issue to the Republicans, and that Democrats should be aggressive in defending themselves."

Mann said Mrs. Clinton is simply following up on her husband's remarks Sunday. Sort of a one-two punch. Sen. Clinton said she thinks her husband "did a great job in demonstrating that Democrats are not going to take these attacks."

But back to Condoleeza Rice. She said she will not be running for president, and as secretary of state she is supposed to downplay politics in her job. But in the age of al Qaeda that may be impossible. With Bill Clinton taking a slap at the Bush administration's pre-9/11 stance on terrorism, she slapped back. That doesn't mean she necessarily has political ambitions for herself, but her counterattack will be appreciated by congressional Republicans up for re-election in November.

Rice also disputed the former president's assertion Sunday that the Bush administration fired Richard Clarke, former White House anti-terrorism chief. She said Clarke "left when he did not become deputy director of Homeland Security." The strong implication was that Clarke, passed over for promotion, left in a huff. Clarke, now an ABC News consultant, said he did indeed resign, but he resigned because he was frustrated with the White House's response to terrorism.

All this fascinates Washington, and it eagerly awaits the next cannon shot regardless of where it comes from. This is a town consumed with politics 24/7. And with terrorism and national security such crucial issues as both parties struggle for supremacy on Capitol Hill, surely politics is why we sit around slack-jawed wondering what's next.

But it's more than that. Washington enjoys watching heavy-hitters do some heavy hitting.