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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 01:17 GMT 02:17 UK
Politics over principles
By Mark Orchard
BBC, Washington

President George W Bush has made a habit and a trademark out of standing on principle.

He did so over the war in Iraq and over his tax cuts and he tried, ever so hard, to do the same over whether his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, should testify in public before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks.

On Tuesday, he lost the battle.

The White House realised that in this case the politics - and the political damage it was suffering - trumped its principles.

In this case, the principles were something called "executive privilege" and the "separation of powers".

Candid advice

Presidential advisors like Ms Rice are not appointed by Congress.

The White House argued that if they could be compelled to testify before it then these advisers wouldn't always give the president candid advice.

This argument was never really challenged by those seeking to get Ms Rice to testify in public. It didn't need to be.

To everyone, except those working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it looked like the administration had something to hide from the 9/11 commission.

In the end any potential damage that could come from her testimony was far outweighed by the real political damage that was being done by the administration's stonewalling.

In agreeing to let Ms Rice testify, the White House has sought and will be given assurances that it sets no precedent for future administrations.

The precedent was already set though. Presidents Carter and Clinton permitted their national security advisers to testify to congressional committees.

They had to. As with President Bush, they found the political pressure to testify was too great.

Bush ahead in polls

It's now nine days since the Richard Clarke affair began, and at this stage, it looks like Mr Clarke's allegations have hurt the president politically but haven't destroyed Mr Bush's very real chances of re-election in November.

The latest opinion polls - taken since Mr Clarke made his claims - suggest that that a majority of the American people still approve of President Bush's leadership in the war on terrorism.

But a small majority of people now say that they believe the Bush administration is covering up something about its handling of intelligence before 11 September 2001.

Perhaps the most important numbers deal with Mr Bush's approval ratings and how people view him in comparison with Democrat challenger John Kerry.

For the first time since mid-February, Mr Bush leads Mr Kerry by a narrow margin and he has overtaken his opponent in the 17 so-called battleground states.

Perhaps these figures reflect the fact that for many people Mr Clarke's allegations have been drowned out by millions of dollars that the Bush campaign has started to spend on advertising.

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