Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2007
If there were a Golden Rule of Washington politics, it would have to be
phrased rather differently from the biblical injunction. The prevailing
ethos of our nation’s capital appears to be “Do unto others before they
get a chance to do unto you.” Most Americans say they’re sickened by
excess partisanship and dirty tricks, but it’s not clear that they
really mean it. With respect to political scandals, many appear
unwilling or unable to perform the simplest thought experiment: to wit,
turn a story inside-out. What would you be saying if the opposite party
got caught using the same underhanded tactics? It’s the only way I know
to remove partisan blinders. Take the Valerie Plame affair. What if the
Clinton White House had deliberately identified a CIA employee to punish
her husband for not going along with an administration line that helped
drive the nation to war? What if Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff
had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice? Would Bill
Clinton have survived to commute his sentence before being impeached,
convicted and removed from office? Would Gore have escaped criminal
To ask the question is to answer it. Goodness, Washington went berserk
over Clinton’s ignominious sex lies. Add a beautiful blonde and the word
“treason,” and the Capitol dome would have levitated into the heavens.
On “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert would have spontaneously combusted.
That’s what made it so remarkable when former White House press
secretary Scott McClellan briefly appeared to have spilled the beans
about the Plame affair in his forthcoming book, “What Happened: Inside
the Bush White House and What’s Wrong With Washington.” Infamous for
stonewalling and evasiveness, McClellan for once came clean.
“The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on
his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” he wrote. “So I stood at the White
House briefing room podium... for the better part of two weeks and
publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House:
Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.
“ There was one problem. It was not true.
“ I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the
highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my
doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president’s chief of
staff and the president himself.” For approximately 24 hours, Washington
held its breath. Was McClellan actually breaking rank? Would his book
really tell us, in the classic Watergate formulation, what President
Bush knew and when he knew it? Would it implicate Bush in the cover-up?
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had more than once hinted at Dick
Cheney’s role. During Libby’s trial, a copy of former Ambassador Joe
Wilson’s original New York Times article questioning the “intelligence”
about African uranium that hyped Iraq’s imaginary nuclear threat was put
into evidence with Cheney’s angry comments scrawled in the margins.
During his closing argument, Fitzgerald told the jury, “There is a cloud
over the vice president.... That cloud remains because the defendant
obstructed justice. That cloud is there. That cloud is something that we
just can’t pretend isn’t there.” Back in the day, Bush had vowed to kick
ass and take names.
“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,”
he declared on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has
got any information inside our administration or outside our
administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the
information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true
and get on about the business.” McClellan told reporters that anybody
involved in leaking Plame’s covert identity would be fired.
“There’s been nothing, absolutely nothing, brought to our attention,” he
insisted, “to suggest any White House involvement.” At the time, White
House apparatchiks, knowing that Attorney General John Ashcroft headed
the investigation, did not tell the truth. As he would subsequently also
do with regard to wiretaps, however, Ashcroft proved loyal to the law
rather than his political cronies. He recused, leading to Fitzgerald’s
appointment and setting the cat among the pigeons. Had Bush not
shamefully commuted Libby’s sentence, there’s no telling how far the
evidence might have taken him. The White House got away with it largely
because, as Wilson and Plame wrote after McClellan’s remarks surfaced,
“the Washington press establishment... increasingly resembles the
corrupt Soviet propaganda mill.” Nobody who reads Plame’s own book,
“Fair Game,” carefully vetted by CIA censors, can continue to deny her
dedicated and courageous service to her country. Charged with nuclear
counter-proliferation, she undertook covert missions in the Middle East
as recently as 2002. But never mind. The day after Scottie’s bombshell,
his publisher took it all back. “[Bush ] told him something that wasn’t
true, but the president didn’t know it wasn’t true,” he said. “The
president told him what he thought to be the case.” So here’s my
question: How does Scottie know what Bush knew?
•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.