BARELY a teenager, the bricklayer’s son wandered down the marble corridors of the Capitol and through the portals of the White House, a lone black face in a crush of Caucasian bodies, and reminded himself that this city of unfathomable power was where he belonged.
Sixteen years after that eighth-grade field trip, Clark Kent Ervin sat in the winter chill as an invited guest to the inauguration of President-elect George Herbert Walker Bush. Ervin showed up a day or two later for an appointment at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. A secretary escorted him into the splendid old room occupied by C. Gregg Petersmeyer, the director of President Bush’s newly created Office of National Service. Petersmeyer was holding Ervin’s résumé. On top of it was a handwritten note penned by the president’s son George W. Bush. This is the kind of person we’re looking for, it said. Within minutes, Petersmeyer popped the question, and Clark Kent Ervin, his newest deputy, became officially wedded to Washington.
In January 2001 Ervin attended a second inauguration, this one honoring the man whose handwritten note had helped land him his first government position. Once again, Ervin was job-hunting. He’d returned to Washington without any offers but also—considering his relationships with half the Republicans in town, including George W. Bush—without the slightest worries. Sure enough, a friend in the president-elect’s transition office set him up with freshly confirmed Secretary of State Colin Powell. Men of Powell’s fame are not easily charmed, and therefore the Secretary must have been surprised to hear himself ask before the end of the interview, “Are you married? Because I’ve got two daughters who aren’t.”
Less than two years after being hired by Powell as the State Department’s inspector general, Ervin—now married, though not to one of the boss’s offspring—received a call from the White House Office of Personnel. Would Ervin like to become inspector general of the brand-new, high-profile Department of Homeland Security? Why, yes. He would be honored. On February 27, 2003, he walked into his confirmation hearing and was introduced by U.S. senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn. Gushed Hutchison to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, “I can’t think of a better person for this job.” Seconding this, Cornyn said of “my good friend,” “Everyone who knows Clark recognizes his can-do attitude, and I know that will serve him well.”
Why wouldn’t it? Practically from inception, Ervin was a success-seeking missile wrapped inside an affable Peanuts cartoon character. Bright and gabby and rigorously unoffensive, he refused to dwell on ill fortune, fluttering out of his few missteps with a deft pirouette and then moving onward again. No one who had tracked Ervin’s ascendancy could have foretold December 8, 2004, the day he was effectively dismissed from his job as DHS inspector general after gaining a reputation as the government’s most aggressive whistle-blower on our national security deficiencies. For making America safer, Clark Kent Ervin was shown the gate, and not a single one of his famous friends—including Powell, Cornyn, Hutchison, and the Bushes—publicly voiced a syllable of protest. Instead, it fell to White House spokesman Scott McClellan to say simply of Ervin: “We appreciate the job he has done.”
To Ervin’s longtime friends, the 46-year-old Houston Republican’s sudden expulsion seemed unfair in the extreme. But the most surprised were those like me who had known Ervin since adolescence and had long suspected him of being little more than an ingratiating climber—and who, until his latest turn as Watchdog in Chief, had always scoffed when pals like his old Kinkaid classmate Adam Ereli, now deputy spokesman for the State Department, would say, “He’s too good to be true.”
But what if he really was that good? What then?
EVEN IN THE MOST TRANQUIL of times—such as when President Jimmy Carter signed the Inspector General Act, in 1978—the job of an IG, as a former one, Sherman Funk, once said, consists of “straddling a barbed-wire fence.” An inspector general reports both to Congress and to the agency whose activities he monitors. Neither public advocate nor special prosecutor, the ideal IG is neutral, faceless, and fearless, a ghost in the bureaucratic machine.
This seemed an unlikely description of Ervin, a hyperambitious career Republican with a talent for making himself memorable. And yet no one in America was more qualified for the newly created post of Department of Homeland Security inspector general than Ervin. As the State Department’s IG, he had scrutinized 260 embassies and consulates around the world. “He came into the State Department with little or no insight into its operations,” recalled a former colleague there, “but he worked very hard at learning all the issues and making sure the IG was an effective tool for senior management.” Those “senior managers” were Colin Powell and Powell’s deputy secretary, Richard Armitage, Beltway gladiators who could make sausage out of grandstanders and pushovers. Ervin proved to be neither. He went by the book “and fully asserted the inspector’s independence, and I know his work was well received in the department and on both sides of the aisle on the Hill,” said another co-worker.
Still, what Ervin would be straddling at his new job wasn’t a barbed-wire fence but a snake pit. As a post-9/11 political appointee of President George W. Bush’s, he was thrown into an incendiary atmosphere of hysteria and finger-pointing. The frail new agency Ervin would be troubleshooting was in fact a patchwork of 22 preexisting bureaucracies. Many of them weren’t thrilled to be sharing turf under a new step-parent’s dominion.
In the fall of 2003, acting inspector general Ervin unleashed his investigators on America’s airports to conduct a so-called penetration test. Their findings left him “absolutely stunned.” His plainclothes inspectors had waltzed through screening areas—among them the security checkpoints at Logan International Airport, in Boston, where most of the 9/11 hijackers had boarded their planes—with daggers, guns, and bombs. Ervin also decided that his people had better examine how the airport screeners had been trained. He found that