Entry from August 31, 2006

“Calling James Bowman. . .” writes David Frum in his Diary on NRO today, and he invites my comments on the proposition that Richard Armitage, former deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell and now revealed to be the ur-source of the leak of Valerie Plame’s name to the press has behaved dishonorably. Here is my reply. Dear David. . .

You are of course right in what you say about Richard Armitage, but there’s plenty of dishonor to go around in this matter — beginning with the grand-daddy of it all, which was Joseph Wilson’s op-ed in the New York Times that set the whole sorry business in motion. For someone who, however temporarily, was working for President Bush and his agents to take his disagreement with them public was a despicable act that could have had nothing but evil consequences for the war effort, then in the very beginning of its difficult and painful adjustment from conventional warfare to counter-insurgency, as well as for the president’s and the country’s standing in the world. Joe Wilson was not in a position to know everything, or even everything that the administration knew. His second-guessing could have been of little or no usefulness even if it had been done privately and disinterestedly. Given publicly and patently for his own self-advancement at the administration’s — and his country’s — expense, it should have resulted in his being shunned by all decent people rather than lionized in the media.

The fact that it didn’t is also what helps to explain the behavior Richard Armitage as well as that of a great many other people who see public service as a means to personal advancement. If Joe Wilson’s insubordination made him a hero rather than a villain, why shouldn’t the same fate befall an internal administration dissident like Mr Armitage — or successors like Richard Clarke or Michael Scheuer who have found a quick route to celebrity in taking their disgreements with it public? Like others of Mrs Wilson’s fellow CIA employees, they actually briefed against the President during the 2004 election campaign without suffering any consequences. Ultimately, the greatest dishonor should go to the scandal-mongering of the media, so ready to heap rewards on such people, but of course that would only happen if we still had anything like an honor culture to appeal to over the media’s heads, as it were.

The media love scandal so much partly because it serves as a disguise for their hatred of honor. Such hatred is the natural corollary of the cynicism with which they approach the exercise of power and the eagerness with which they seek out instances of its misuse. Traditionally, scandal has been the honor culture’s self-cleaning system. The ever-present possibility of scandal for dishonorable behavior is what keeps people behaving honorably. But for that system to work properly, scandal must be rare and (therefore) shocking. When it becomes routine, when the hunt for scandal becomes the media’s everyday pursuit and even their raison d’être, a great moral inversion takes place. Honor becomes the property of those who, like village gossips, spread scandal, while dishonor is reserved for those who don’t, those who, in the media’s parlance, cover it up. As for the substance of the scandal itself, it is necessarily trivialized — even when it is not (as in this case) inherently trivial — by the media’s underlying assumption that official wrong-doing is the norm rather than a shocking departure from it.

I remember reading an interview with Paul Greengrass, the director of the 9/11 movie, United 93, in which he said that his boyhood hero had been Carl Bernstein. “I read All the President’s Men, bought a coat and wore the collar turned up, dreamt of being an investigative reporter and bringing governments down,” he told the London Sunday Times. Isn’t that just so precious? In other words, his dream of glory for himself as an individual was to win fame and fortune by finding some pretext under which he might drag through the dirt the leadership of his country. No wonder his movie was so much more interested in portraying the incompetence of the authorities in their slow reaction to the hijackings than it was in the heroism of the four men on board flight 93 — whom it didn’t even name — who did the most to foil the attack on America’s leaders in Washington. Who cares about them anyway? They’re probably only waiting to be exposed by some latter-day Woodward and Bernstein. Why does no one ever remark on the spiritual sickness in such a set of values?

The class of “honorables” who make up the happy hunting ground of the media’s search for self-advancing glory naturally adapt to such cultural surroundings, like the bacteria who adapt to living in a poisoned environment. Mr Armitage was merely playing by the media’s rules, which countenance and reward all manner of backbiting and scandal-mongering so long as it can pretend, however implausibly, to be “whistle-blowing” about the misdeeds of the great. The irony in this case was that he went after the wrong target from the media’s point of view — namely Joe Wilson, who had already cast himself in the whistle-blower’s role — but that his faux pas, when mistakenly attributed to others, became a whole new scandal and one which many in the media and the political opposition thought (or affected to think) could be of Watergate-like proportions. So tantalizing was this prospect to the media culture and all those who, like Paul Greengrass, have become its starry-eyed admirers that I doubt whether, if Richard Armitage had decided to come clean at an early stage, he would even have been heard.

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