THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Sometimes the big jets fly so low over the Hudson that you'd swear if you squinted hard you could see the profiles of the passengers sitting in the window seats. I'm not the only one who follows their path across the sky, who turns at the sound of fire engines, who sniffs when smoke is in the air.

Some memories get written deep into your DNA, so that responding to them is an inescapable physical act. The plane flies on without the sound of an explosion. The fire engines are only going to a car fire on Eleventh Avenue. The smoke is only from the engine burning. It is a spring day in 2004, not September 11, 2001.

But the mind does not forget.

Except, of course, in our nation's capital, where the aftermath of that time--the united purpose, the patriotism, the thirst for solace and for truth--evaporated quicker than you can say "two-party system." For two days last week in Washington, the nation revisited the terrorist attacks, and for a short time, within one hearing room, the smoke of invective cleared. Public servants from two administrations came and talked, humbly, mostly, of the failures of the largest intelligence-gathering operation on earth. One of them did something that had never been done before. He apologized. "Your government failed you," he said. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you."

By then Richard Clarke was, as one member of the 9/11 commission said, "the elephant in the room." He'd been preceded by a new book and its attendant publicity, both ripping the Bush administration for a lackluster interest in terrorism before Al Qaeda struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. He was sharp and smart and slightly above his company, a man you could tell would be a royal pain to have around unless you wanted a job done right. When he was cross-examined by a Republican member of the group about his support for the president when he was in the White House and his criticisms once he had left, he replied coolly, "It's a question of politics."

That was the real elephant in the room, the extent to which policy was trumped by politics, making the world less safe for American citizens. President Bill Clinton may have balked at pursuing Osama bin Laden because of accusations that he was just trying to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky debacle. The Bush administration may have been dismissive of its predecessor's emphasis on Al Qaeda after the bitterness of the Florida recount. And Clarke himself called a full stop to discussions of terrorism before the panel to swear under oath that he was not seeking a position in a Kerry administration.

The internecine warfare that keeps engagement on the issues as foreshortened as the height of the city's buildings had eddied around Clarke for most of the week. He was not really in the loop, some members of the Bush administration suggested, although his account of a disengaged president, an obsession with Iraq and a White House driven by political operatives was remarkably similar to that former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill had described in an earlier book the president's men had also trashed. The loop is where everything takes place. By definition it is circular, self-referential, an echo chamber.

Not long ago Rush Limbaugh gave a speech that described the political polarization in this country as a war between good and evil. He said that conservatives should not worry about dialogue with liberals; they should concentrate on defeating them. And he added that liberals hated George W. Bush because he connected with American citizens.

It was not possible that they disagreed with his policies, thought that basing the prescription-drug plan on phony lowball numbers was imprudent, didn't believe the Constitution should be tampered with to prohibit gay marriage, thought the unilateral incursion into Iraq was questionable. It couldn't be that Clarke was frustrated by policies on terrorism he considered dangerously shortsighted, but that he was auditioning for a position with the opposition.

Consultation, compromise, analysis, ambiguity: all give way to politics as blood sport, to disdain and demonization. It is the antithesis of the spirit that seized the country after September 11. If the president, and the presidential candidate, really understand how the terrorist attacks changed America, they will change the spirit of their campaigns. Of course, this is like disarmament: will anyone have the guts to go first?

Some memories are written in the DNA. Clarke's apology will be one of them, because those inside the loop had never thought to proffer one. So, too, will be the memory of George Tenet, the CIA director, saying, "My fear is, people are going to say: 'It's five years away. It's six.' It's not. It's coming." With that warning ringing in their ears, how could the officials responsible for the safety of the American people waste their time attacking those "outside the loop" for their perfidy? Over the probably ordinary, perhaps ominous sound of yet another plane heading up the Hudson, you could almost hear the sound of Nero's fiddle and smell the smoke.