Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Unraveling

The trial of Scooter Libby is taking on a life of its own that has some historical parallels.

First, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer took the stand and said that Mr. Libby told him the identity of Valerie Plame over lunch three days before Mr. Libby says he learned that she was a CIA operative from NBC’s Tim Russert. Under tough cross-examination, Mr. Fleischer stuck to his story and pretty much torpedoed Mr. Libby’s defense.

Then Mr. Fleischer noted that among the reporters he tipped off to Ms. Plame’s identity was then-Time-now-Slate reporter John Dickerson, who was sitting in the courtroom and almost had a Perry Mason moment when he found himself and his story being entered as evidence in the case.

For those of us who remember Watergate, it wasn’t the “third-rate burglary” that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. It wasn’t even the hush money paid to the burglars or the dirty tricks planned at the hands of G. Gordon Liddy in order to undermine the Democrats in the 1972 election. It was the cover-up that did them all in; the lying to the FBI, lying to Congress, and the obstruction of justice in the investigations that did it. The initial incident was nothing compared to the attempt to kill the result.

The same is true here. The leak of Valerie Plame’s name, as odious and craven as it was in the attempt by the Bush administration to get back at someone for embarrassing the White House for calling them out on the infamous sixteen words, turns out to have been an inadvertant slip of the tongue by Richard Armitage, an innocuous public servant who, as far as anyone can tell, had no political motives when he did it. He just plain goofed. But given the paranoia and revenge-filled mindset of this White House, led by a president who can never make mistakes and enabled by willing toadys like Karl Rove within and the right-wing orcosphere without, it is not surprising that suspicion immediately fell on the higher-ups like Rove, Cheney, and even the president himself.

Their immediate response bore out those suspicions and followed the Nixon model as if they had gone to the National Archives and followed the script to the letter. First there was the dismissal of the claim that the leak came from the office of the Vice President; a dismissal issued by Mr. Fleischer’s successor. (Ironically, Mr. Fleischer’s last day at the White House was the day Robert Novak’s column appeared and launched the whole episode.) Then there was the claim that the White House was looking into the leak as vigorously as possible and would fire anyone connected with it if it proved to be true. Then when the Justice Department began an official investigation, the White House promised their complete cooperation – as long as it didn’t interfere with their duties. That’s White House-speak for “over my dead body.”

There was a great sigh of relief, not to mention some gloating, from the White House and their minions when Karl Rove wasn’t indicted in the case, and the attitude seemed to be that whatever happened to Mr. Libby, it wouldn’t reach the West Wing. The Nixon White House thought they had insulated themselves pretty well, too.

It seems ironic that the Bush administration, which came into power crowing that they would restore honor and integrity to the government, especially after the sleazy and unseemly affairs of their predecessor who had committed the capital offense of lying to a grand jury and deserved impeachment and all sorts of draconian punishment for it, is now in danger of having all of its inner workings and machinations exposed because one of their own – and someone they set up to take the fall – lied to a grand jury.

First Iraq and Vietnam, now Watergate and Scooter Libby. Haven’t we had enough of re-runs from the 1970’s?