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Tony Lake's problem was Tony Lake

Tony Lake is right. Washington has gone haywire.

Here's a guy who doesn't even know what's going on in his own office. And we were thinking of putting him in charge of the agency that has to ferret out everything that's going on around the world?

The two raps on the former national security adviser were that he kept all the information to himself, and that he was out of the loop. He was in the know and out of the know.

But President Clinton wanted to rid himself of his NSC chief, and he couldn't figure out anywhere else to put him. Clinton does not think highly of the CIA anyway, that flaky outfit up the river that does creepy stuff out in the woods. So why not stick Tony there?

He was not a failure at the NSC, but he was politically maladroit, a bit mushy, a bit odd, studiously gray. Why not switch him to an even more politically sensitive agency, discredited, anachronistic and desperately in need of leadership? Why not put the wrong guy at the wrong place for the wrong reasons?

Spies are trained to be stoic if they get caught. But not the man who wanted to be Head Spook, as George Bush playfully called himself when he ran the CIA. Caught spacing out while foreigners were trying to buy our government, Lake did not deign to explain.

Instead he dropped out, writing an artfully indignant and self-servingly high-minded letter casting himself as a martyr of a "nasty and brutish" process. There was a macabre echo of Vince Foster's complaint about Washington and blood sport. The president said, "No one should have to endure what he has endured."

What endurance? Lake lasted barely longer than Shannon Faulkner at The Citadel.

Certainly, confirmation hearings can get rough. But before people start venerating St. Anthony, let's have a little historical perspective. The roughness of which Democrats are now complaining was the creation of Democrats. It was they who turned confirmation hearings into inquisitions. Remember Robert Bork, John Tower and Clarence Thomas? But Democrats like to do unto others and whine unto themselves.

Washington has not gone haywire. It is a city designed for divisiveness. The president should not mistake his failures for the failures of the system. The capital is built for checks and balances, and he got checked.

Yes, some of the questions that were posed to Lake were not exactly elevating. Some of them were even (surprise!) political. But Lake wanted to run an agency that deals with life and death, that plays a significant role in the security of this country and its interests. He should have been tough enough to get past the irksome and ideological likes of Richard Shelby and James Inhofe. If he found the inquiries about campaign financing and foreign policy annoying and demeaning, his complaint is with the president.

Lake did what suited him and then chalked it up to conscience. He called his withdrawal a protest meant to encourage people to think about what Washington is doing to itself. How homiletical. But I am tired of homilies from Clintonites who should be thinking about what they are doing to Washington.

Although Lake's "haywire" line got all the attention, it was another sentence in his letter that provided the real reason for his withdrawal: "In addition, the story Tuesday about the activities of Roger Tamraz is likely to lead to further delay as an investigation proceeds."

Lake would have had a tough time explaining why he was missing in action when the Democratic Party tried to use the CIA to pressure Lake's office to help get an accused embezzler and big donor access to the White House. The Cold War might be over, but don't these agencies have something better to do than vet global hustlers and fat cats?

Sheila Heslin, an NSC Asia expert with a regard for ethics unusually high for the Clinton White House, offered to shield the president from the notorious Roger Tamraz. But like the Beijing businessman Johnny Chung, who also got into the White House despite tepid NSC warnings, Tamraz had his run of the people's house.

So that's why Tony Lake pulled out: He was not Borked. He was Tamrazzed.

New York Times News Service