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In the perfect world where critics of the Sept. 11 Commission live, perhaps it would have been possible for the panel to issue a report that was harshly critical of political leaders without slighting its primary function or sacrificing public credibility. Not in the real world, though.

There has been some criticism of the 9/1 1 Commission for not criticizing President Bush or former President Bill Clinton more severely. Certainly, a report that detailed the specific failures of Bush or Clinton might have been useful to the public, especially in an election year, but to what effect? It would have done little to enhance the country's safety; it would have split the bipartisan commission, detracting from its more important institutional recommendations; and all in the name of providing information about which the country already seems to have a pretty good sense.

By and large, Americans understand that both presidents failed in certain ways. In evaluating both men, they include an acknowledgment that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were of a sort that few people, in or out of government, had imagined. They factor in an understanding that Bush had control of the executive branch for less than eight months when the attacks occurred. And they understand that while Washington may have flubbed opportunities to detect and thwart the attacks, much of the blame traces to the patchwork nature of the American intelligence services.

Barring some explosive revelation, most Americans already have enough information on Bush's performance on terrorism as they consider whether to extend his lease on the White House. It was more important for this commission to bridge the nation's partisan rift, and agree on a program of institutional reforms than to issue a fractured report that apportions blame and would have undermined its credibility.

The commission met its obligation solidly. It kept its eye on the ball -- the Sept. 11 attacks -- while resisting pressure to comment on the war in Iraq and other parallel issues. By focusing on its mission, it was able to produce a valuable and far-reaching set of recommendations while preserving the credibility of the report and the commissioners' ability to campaign effectively for its adoption.

That was the way to serve the nation's interests. Anything else might have scratched some partisan itches, but from talk radio to concert stages, the country already has more than enough people doing that, on both sides of the political divide. This was a time for sober assessment. That's what the commission delivered.

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