Friday, July 24, 2009

On the Battlefield

Say what you will about former Vice President Dick Cheney, he takes care of his friends regardless of what they did or the consequences of their actions. I suppose that’s an admirable quality, but it makes you wonder what’s more important to him; keeping Scooter Libby employed and his legacy intact, or seeing justice done. Time magazine has a look into the final days of the Bush administration and the battle between Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney over whether the president should pardon Mr. Libby.

Hours before they were to leave office after eight troubled years, George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney had one final and painful piece of business to conclude. For over a month Cheney had been pleading, cajoling, even pestering Bush to pardon the Vice President’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Libby had been convicted nearly two years earlier of obstructing an investigation into the leak of a covert CIA officer’s identity by senior White House officials. The Libby pardon, aides reported, had become something of a crusade for Cheney, who seemed prepared to push his nine-year-old relationship with Bush to the breaking point — and perhaps past it — over the fate of his former aide. “We don’t want to leave anyone on the battlefield,” Cheney argued.

The battlefield metaphor is interesting, seeing as how Mr. Cheney managed five deferments during the Vietnam war, citing “other priorities,” and it’s also an insight as to how he views the way things work in Washington; as a war rather than the give and take of politics and policy.

What comes through in this article is Mr. Cheney’s obsession with shaping the legacy of the administration he steered, either overtly or behind the scenes, into the war in Iraq and making sure that anyone who dared to challenge him was dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly. It also shows that he and his supporters have a rather flexible definition of what is pardonable and what isn’t. Ten years ago the Republicans and the right wingers drove the Congress and Senate to impeach and put on trial President Bill Clinton for doing exactly the same thing that Mr. Libby was convicted of: lying to a grand jury. The nation could not stand it if someone in the White House lied about getting a blow job. But after the Libby conviction, the righties’ meme was that it was a “technicality” and that lying under oath was no big deal. (In a perverse way, some commentators blamed Mr. Clinton for Mr. Libby’s plight; it a president could get away with it, why couldn’t he?) The irony is so thick you can stand a spoon up in it.

The facts of the Libby case are pretty well known: someone in the White House leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to Robert Novack as part of the retaliation for her husband writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times that called into question the veracity of one of President Bush’s reasons for going to war in Iraq. The trail led to the White House; specifically to the office of the vice president and Karl Rove. When Mr. Libby was questioned by a grand jury about his role in the leak, he lied to them. He was put on trial for perjury and convicted in March 2007. Several months later when he was sentenced, the president commuted his sentence, but did not grant him a pardon. This demand for exoneration became a cause celebre among the conservatives: Scooter was being punished for doing his job of keeping the evil lefties from ruining their war. But, to his credit, President Bush did not feel that Mr. Libby had met the criterion of earning a pardon; he didn’t admit to his guilt, he didn’t show remorse, and he hadn’t served time — something the president took care of with his commutation. Having ridden into office on the coattails of the Marc Rich pardon kerfuffle by President Clinton, even Mr. Bush saw the double standard staring him in the face. On the last weekend in the White House, Mr. Bush decided that Mr. Libby didn’t deserve a pardon.

He called Jim Sharp, his personal attorney in the Plame case, who had been present when he was interviewed by Fitzgerald in 2004. Sharp was known in Washington as one of the best lawyers nobody knew. A savvy raconteur from Oklahoma who had represented a long list of colorful clients — from Nixon pal Charles G. (Bebe) Rebozo to Sammy Sosa — Sharp had worked quietly for the President for a while before anyone even knew about it. In the meantime, the two men had become friends, spending hours chatting over cigars and near beer. On the Sunday before he left office, Bush invited Sharp to the executive mansion for a farewell cigar.

While packing boxes in the upstairs residence, according to his associates, Bush noted that he was again under pressure from Cheney to pardon Libby. He characterized Cheney as a friend and a good Vice President but said his pardon request had little internal support. If the presidential staff were polled, the result would be 100 to 1 against a pardon, Bush joked. Then he turned to Sharp. “What’s the bottom line here? Did this guy lie or not?”

The lawyer, who had followed the case very closely, replied affirmatively.

Bush indicated that he had already come to that conclusion too.

“O.K., that’s it,” Bush said.

To this day, Mr. Cheney still carries his torch for Mr. Libby; in response to the Time article, he released a statement:

Scooter Libby is an innocent man who was the victim of a severe miscarriage of justice. He was not the source of the leak of Valerie Plame’s name. Former Deputy Secretary of State, Rich Armitage, leaked the name and hid that fact from most of his colleagues, including the President. Mr. Libby is an honorable man and a faithful public servant who served the President, the Vice President and the nation with distinction for many years. He deserved a presidential pardon.

This would all be rather ordinary were it not for the fact that it points out that Mr. Cheney’s priority in the matter wasn’t whether or not an agent of the CIA was compromised, whether or not the country knew the truth about the lies being told to get us into a war that has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and decimated our honor and fortune, or whether or not Mr. Libby received a fair trial and justice was done. All that mattered was that his friend was able to work as a lawyer again and that his reputation was somehow restored by the stroke of the president’s pen. Even President Bush, who had the most to gain or lose by the outcome of the Libby/Plame case, felt that justice had been done, that Mr. Libby was guilty and without remorse, and that he was doing the right thing — finally — by standing up to Mr. Cheney. (It also makes you wonder why Mr. Cheney is so determined to clear Mr. Libby. It’s almost as if there was some really compelling reason to keep him happy… and silent.) It’s also a little tragic that the one time when Mr. Bush went against the advice and strong persuasion of Mr. Cheney, its outcome was less than consequential; what if he had said no to the war in Iraq? There are a lot of people still left out on that battlefield.