Truth, Justice, and the (Un)American Way

It seemed nothing could stop CLARK KENT ERVIN, who lifted himself out of Houston’s Third Ward and became a go-to appointee for two presidents Bush. But when the former inspector general for homeland security blew the whistle on his department, he found that superhuman ambition is no match for the politics of Washington.

April 2005By Comments

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 not only were the questions on the applicants’ tests hopelessly easy but that in most cases, the answers to the test questions were provided anyway.

Ervin’s report immediately made headlines. But more to the point, its findings were unassailable and ultimately forced change. By 2004 the chagrined Transportation Security Administration (the DHS subagency tasked with airport safety) had reformed its testing program and upgraded its weapons-detection technology. In the interim, however, Ervin found the reaction from upstairs to be curious. “Why do we have to refer to it as a failure rate?” he claims acting deputy secretary of the DHS Admiral James Loy beseeched him when the two sat down to discuss the airport screening fiascos. “Why not talk about the pass rate?” At least Loy wasn’t strong-arming Ervin, unlike two other senior staffers, who warned the inspector general to back off. Ervin politely informed them that he intended to fulfill the IG’s charter, and did so.

DHS Secretary Tom Ridge remained Ervin’s greatest source of perplexity. Unlike Colin Powell, with whom the former State Department inspector general met numerous times, Ridge received his inspector general only twice. Ervin found him to be gentlemanly but fretful: “The attitude was, Why do you have to say this? Why do you have to share this with the Congress? He had the good sense never to talk me out of publishing something. But he did try to get me to tone it down. He said, ‘What can we do to at least coordinate our messages so that your spin on the report is the same as mine?’ I said, ‘We’re not in the spin business.’”

AMBITION, LIKE THE HUMAN BODY that harbors it, is at once divine and pornographic. Back in his youth, Clark Kent Ervin cheerfully laid out for a Houston Post reporter the path he had charted for himself: congressman, then U.S. senator, and finally, by 2008, occupant of the White House. When I reminded him of this, 28 years later, Ervin laughed as the two of us sat in his brand-new, and thus unornamented, D.C. office furnished by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank where Ervin had been recently installed as the director of its Homeland Security Initiative. “You know, I saw that article at Christmastime at my mother’s house,” he said. “I dug it out. It’s sickening, in retrospect—the kind of thing you say when you’re twenty that you’d never say when you’re forty-five.”

But hadn’t he recently indicated his desire to be CIA director? “Well, down the road,” Ervin allowed. “Ultimately. But in the immediate short term, the next thing would be to be an ambassador somewhere. My plan, if all went well, was to stay in the inspector general slot for two or three years, and, presuming the president would be reelected . . .  well,” he winced a smile. “That was the plan.”

Ervin’s plans for himself have always been audacious. As a teenager, his breezy self-assurance bordered on the supernatural. Maybe it came from his brother eleven years his senior, who had done the honor of naming the baby after a comic book hero. Or from his father, who found it within himself to roll out of bed every morning for 42 years to lay bricks and saw wood for Atlantic Richfield. Certainly he was buoyed up by his mother, who drove him every morning from the bleakness of the Third Ward to the burnished grounds of the Kinkaid School, in the Memorial neighborhood, and then back home again—and who once told a Kinkaid teacher who saw her waiting in her car: “Oh, it’s just fine. Clark will only be around the house for a few years, and I treasure the time I can be with him and help him.”

There were benefactors along the way, but by and large Ervin was his own affirmative action program. By the age of five, he was playing the piano. By junior high school, he was anchoring a Houston television news program for kids, scrapping the snippets about the newborn zebra at the Houston Zoo in favor of updates on the coup in Chile. In 1974 People wrote about the fifteen-year-old black newscaster who intended one day to be president. He was a celebrity at Kinkaid, where he slid easily into the required navy-blue blazer and khakis. One of the boys felt obliged to greet Clark daily by calling him a nigger. Clark pretended not to hear. Years later, while campaigning for U.S. Congress, he hit up the boy’s rich father and received a substantial contribution.

His halo of congenital sunniness burned brighter as the odds grew longer. Ervin’s parents had never attended college, but that was too low a bar. He had to go to Harvard. Then to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. The more he achieved, the less inclined he was to relate to the Struggle; he officially became a Republican while attending Harvard Law School in the company of liberals whose views he considered zany. One of his black classmates labeled Ervin a “protective mammy integrationist,” which Ervin figured to be an insult of some kind. In 1985 he returned with his law degree to Houston, though not to the Third Ward. Over lunch one day in the late eighties, he confessed to a former colleague at Vinson and Elkins that it had always been his ambition to work at the White House. The other lawyer, Rob Rowland, grinned and told Ervin, “Hell, George W. Bush is an old friend of mine!”

How could he not be optimistic?

But now it was January 2005, a month into his new role as administration castaway, and no one could blame Ervin for feeling wistful. From his new office on Dupont Circle, it was a brisk walk to the White House, where the bleachers still stood from the inaugural ceremonies. Ervin had not attended. His BlackBerry, that indispensable tool of the Beltway multitasker, lay silent beside his folded hands. Ervin’s hair was now quite gray, and decades of earnest attention-paying had lacerated his forehead with wrinkles. And yet he remained the cuddly, somewhat undersized charmer I’d remembered from our days as rival geek-warriors in the gritty subculture of high school debate. He still flattered his counterpart with “Well, that’s a very good question” and called attention to his own mental agility with “Let me say three things about that” or immediate declarative responses followed by long and florid elaborations. Then there was the voice itself, soothing as a clarinet and untainted by time or place, in the manner of a Midwestern anchorman. It hummed the implicit melody: My BlackBerry WILL ring. And I WILL answer the call!

So good to see you again!” he had sung out in greeting that afternoon. “Thanks so much for coming!” And later: “I always look forward to your articles with great anticipation!” That deluge of effusiveness threw me back into the slipstream of yesteryear. It was the fall of 1974, and we were pitted against each other in the semifinals of a Houston debate tournament. The black teenager with the dapper vested suit, beatific smile, and velvety diction concluded his opening speech with a grand “And so I can only ask for affirmative acquiescence in today’s debate.”

My partner and I nearly sobbed with laughter. Affirmative acquiescence? Who was this cretin? In the ensuing hour, we proceeded to bury Ervin and his partner in a nuclear winter of shrill rebuttal, all of which he sunnily ignored as he continued his oratorical tap dance and his ever-so-polite urgings of affirmative acquiescence. We emerged from the room 100 percent convinced that we had creamed the little twit. When the three judges returned a unanimous decision in his favor, I felt the fulcrum of my adolescent consciousness undergo a tectonic shift. Life was so unfair! Thereafter I bonded with other acne-scarred colleagues who disdained Ervin the Unmarred. The implicit effort that went into being a black superachiever in a world rigged for whites went right past us. Hey, Ervin! we wanted to call out. Quit looking so damned blissful! Sweat a little, why dontcha!

Needless to say, none of us would have envisioned Ervin as America’s consummate watchdog. Nor could we imagine him failing. But Ervin had assigned himself an impossible trajectory, and when he shot for it, he missed badly. In 1991 the U.S. Census report awarded Houston a new congressional district. Here it was, an open seat—the veritable springboard. Friends wondered what Ervin was thinking, running as a Republican in a heavily Hispanic and black district. Those weren’t his people! But Ervin amiably ignored them and the odds. He rang up his wealthy white friends for money, hit the hustings, spangled the Twenty-ninth District with his stellar oratory, and, in November of 1992, got his ass handed to him, garnering only 35 percent of the popular vote.

Two years later, after another failed campaign (this time for state representative), Ervin took a hard look at himself and, optimist that he was, still saw great promise, only of a different kind. “I decided I’m more of a Jim Baker/Colin Powell—type guy,” he said later. Though the Democrats had retaken the White House, by the following year a Bush had seized the statehouse. Ervin moved to Austin and became Secretary of State Tony Garza’s deputy. When Garza resigned in 1997, Ervin marched over to the governor’s office with résumé in hand. George W. Bush received him warmly—“I’ve followed your career for years,” he remembers him saying—but gave the job to Alberto Gonzales instead and sent Ervin a chin-up-kid note. After Gonzales left in 1999 for the Texas Supreme Court, assistant secretary Ervin figured his time had come. Instead, the top job went to Elton Bomer—a state representative, and a Democrat, no less—with no consolation letter to follow. He was forty now. The light was dimming.

But Ervin rallied. An influential buddy knew Texas attorney general John Cornyn, who in turn needed an assistant AG. A mere four years after Ervin’s job interview at the AG’s office, U.S. senator Cornyn sat before the Committee on Governmental Affairs and assured its members that President Bush’s designee as inspector general to the Department of Homeland Security was among “the best and brightest the state had to offer,” concluding, “I offer my enthusiastic and unequivocal support to this nominee.”

AND SO THE CLARK KENT ERVIN who jumped from inspector general of one of Washington’s oldest agencies to inspector general of its newest wasn’t Super Anything anymore, just a solid, honorable backstage workhorse with a freaky Rolodex. But the yearning for greater distinction does not so easily perish. And this may not be relevant, since the startling crash-and-burn of Ervin’s tenure as DHS inspector general can be seen as a Washington tale at its most cautionary, replete with the pettiness and cowardice we’ve come to expect from our nation’s capital. Then again, those with whom Ervin got crosswise might point out that when a lifelong performer is shown a stage, there is some chance that a performance will ensue.

Barely a week after his confirmation hearing, Ervin was in trouble. The Governmental Affairs Committee had questions about an incident that had taken place while he was IG at the State Department, in which a female employee had filed a sexual harassment claim. Ervin and two others on his staff had concluded that since the incident had taken place while the woman was working for the Multinational Force and Observers and involved her co-workers there, it fell outside the State Department’s jurisdiction. The committee staff asked Ervin to return for a briefing. Then another. Then another. Though the original purpose was to ascertain whether Ervin’s decision not to investigate the claim was proper, the proceedings, according to one staffer who was present, “were long and difficult, and they were obviously trying to trap him.”

The questions were repetitive and prosecutorial. At one point, Ervin and two DHS staff members met with committee chair Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine. Less than ten minutes into their discussion, Collins stormed out in a huff, though not before accusing Ervin of failing to disclose a personal debt on his disclosure form. (The debt turned out not to be personal; at the time, Ervin still owed about $25,000 from his failed 1992 congressional campaign.)

Ervin went to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who went to President Bush, who expressed confidence in his fellow Texan by bypassing the Senate vote and awarding Ervin a recess appointment in December 2003. That gave the inspector general a full year to do his work while hoping that Collins might at some point let his nomination go to the Senate floor for full confirmation. And so Ervin bore down on further areas of homeland insecurity. His staff seized on the DHS’s failure to integrate the various terrorist watch lists; on the visa waiver program, which allows foreigners to enter the U.S. without close scrutiny; on air marshals who napped on the job; and on the inept Transportation Security Administration’s hosting a lavish $500,000 awards ceremony.

Ervin’s damning reports, and especially his acute phrasing—such as his conclusion that private- and public-sector screeners “performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly”—frequently made the evening news. The IG’s remarks became election-year political fodder for Democrats. Though inspectors general tend to be an anonymous lot, Ervin was out there, disseminating press releases, being quoted by name. Such actions never go unnoticed in Washington, and Ervin wasn’t a naif. If the Senate didn’t act on his renomination by December, he doubted a newly reelected Bush would begin his second term spending his political capital on an IG whose findings hadn’t done the administration any favors.

And so Ervin began to whirl his Rolodex. He asked senators Hutchison and Cornyn, along with Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, with whom Ervin enjoyed good relations, to speak with Collins. The calls were made, but they did no good. Ervin then wrote a letter to chairman Collins, copying it to each of the Committee on Governmental Affairs’ seventeen members, imploring them to put their seemingly puny grievances aside, to acknowledge “the overall context of my record at State (which Secretary Powell himself has attested to) and my overall record here at DHS” and let the Senate give him an up or down vote. He did not receive a single reply. Collins’s hold on his nomination had become a death grip.

Finally, without so much as a single public objection to Senator Collins’s obstructionism, the White House let Ervin’s recess appointment dwindle, then quietly elapse. He cleared out his desk on the eighth of December. One of his subordinates would later reflect, “I guess some people have the view that he shouldn’t have been as outspoken on the work of the office. IGs vary in that [regard]. I think some of the IGs respected his independence. But they might point out that he’s gone, and they’re still there.”

THE BOOK CLARK KENT ERVIN intends to write and publish this year on homeland security issues will not criticize George W. Bush. He would rather not criticize anyone at all. Being as journalists ply their trade in not altogether sanitary waters, it’s worth sharing the following: My former debate nemesis did not seek me out. During our interviews, he never spoke off the record, never shared private information (such as the name of the woman whose sexual harassment claim triggered the campaign against him), never urged others to call me on his behalf, never called my sources to see what questions I was asking. All of this is in sharp contrast to Ervin’s detractors on Capitol Hill, who would speak only on deep background—and even then elliptically, with dark implications that are only meaningful, I think, insofar as they tell on the tellers.

At the end of our first interview, I asked Ervin what the whole experience had taught him. “I guess it hasn’t taught me anything,” he said after a brief pause. “I knew this kind of thing happened. I’ve certainly antagonized some people in the department, and perhaps some people in the White House. I knew that would happen if I continued to be aggressive. But given a choice between trying to do my job or trying to keep my job, I’d rather do my job. And that might make future confirmation difficult.”

Do my job rather than keep my job—that was a classic Ervin quip, the kind that would have elicited groans from his debate rivals thirty years ago. Now it rang true, and in that instant, I felt significantly smaller than the little guy on the other side of the desk.

“On the other hand”—and here, as Ervin leaned across the desktop, I felt suddenly awash in the thermal effervescence of his undying optimism—“recent history is full of examples of others who had difficulty. Look at Armitage. He had his little dustup over Iran-Contra. You just can’t worry about that sort of thing.”

That too was Ervin. No point in wringing hands, because you could drive yourself nuts flipping the Beltway tea leaves. Like the morning of the 2005 inauguration, when he attended the prayer service at St. John’s Episcopal Church and President Bush said hello as he walked past. It was a message, heartfelt and at the same time maddeningly obscure. And Ervin just can’t worry about that sort of thing.

Here, though, is something else: On the front page of the New York Times’ Sunday, February 20, 2005, edition, the top headline read “Audit Faults U.S. for Its Spending on Port Defense.” That report, which the inspector general’s office of the Department of Homeland Security began last year, confirmed that port protection funding was being wildly misappropriated, leaving cities like Los Angeles and New York vulnerable to terrorist attack. It was significant, surely, that the new inspector general’s name was not published. But the grim substance of the report was particularly meaningful, and among the things it meant was this:

Clark Kent Ervin was right.

ROBERT DRAPER, a former senior editor at TEXAS MONTHLY, is a writer-at-large for GQ.

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