Mister Libby to You

From The New Criterion

“There will be a great deal written and said in coming days about the frustrations of the Scooter Libby verdict. . .” So read the opening clause of the thoughtful editorial by The New York Times on the subject, which itself went on to be every bit as predictable as the volume of comment about those “frustrations” — or as the fact that the only frustrations it saw were in the verdict’s being not enough of a kick in the pants to the Bush administration. But before I plunged into what followed, a muddy torrent of cliché, political marketeers’ talking points and innuendo (the verdict showed, said the editorialist, that Mr Libby “appears to have been trying to cover up a smear campaign that was orchestrated by his boss against the first person to unmask one of the many untruths that President Bush used to justify invading Iraq”), my eye was caught by that word “Scooter,” used without any supplemental allusion to the man’s actual given names or even the slight courtesy of quotation marks.

True, The Times elsewhere reverted to the more decorous “Mr Libby,” while Vice President Cheney’s public response to the verdict on his former chief of staff had been to proclaim himself “saddened for Scooter and his family.” But The Times’s dropping into the colloquial register in the opening sentence of what purported to be a serious editorial pronouncement suggested to me that the Maureen Dowdification of the newspaper of record — once famous for referring even to gangsters and murderers in second reference with the honorific “Mr.” adhering, barnacle-like, to their surnames — continues apace. Miss Dowd, as readers who wisely avoid her almost invariably silly column in the Times may need to be told, has made rather a speciality of using nicknames to cut the mighty down to size, especially when she is writing about politicians whom she doesn’t like, or who have what she would describe as a “preppie” background. As it happens, these mostly belong to the party of “Dubya” and “Rummy” and “Poppy” and “Scooter.”

The point of masculine nicknames is commonly to advertise that their recipients belong to an honor group. President Bush is well known for using them to extend, in his expansive, Texas-style fashion, membership in his own honor-group even, at times, to journalists — though they, jealous of a little-deserved reputation for “professionalism,” must of course decline the honor. Yet the journalistic use of nicknames, particularly by women, conveys a subtle message, if not of contempt then of de-mystification of male power élites by bringing them down to the level of the comfortable and the familiar — along with the likes of “Katie” Couric, the new CBS “anchor” who has always chosen to be known by the diminutive form of her own name, which is Katherine. “Katie” led off the “CBS Evening News” on the night of the verdict by announcing: “Guilty: Scooter Libby is convicted in the CIA leak case, the highest ranking White House official found guilty of a felony since the Iran-Contra scandal.”

Thus, by the way, she also conveyed the message linking Republicans with scandal that seems to have been first thought up by the Times reporter, Neil Lewis, earlier in the day — though the question of whether Mr Libby was more or less “high ranking” than President Clinton’s associate attorney general and, subsequently, convicted felon, Webster (“Web”) Hubbell, must be open to debate. But the affectation of easy familiarity with the occupants of high office inevitably suggests something of the scorn and superiority in which Maureen Dowd routinely trades. To her op-ed persona, the men on whom the task has devolved of assuming responsibility for the world’s most dangerous and intractable problems are just overgrown boys hiding out in their clubhouse where no girls are allowed — except for “Condi,” whose nickname proclaims her an honorary boy — and hatching fantastical schemes of world domination that always go awry.

Well, it’s one way to look at the big questions of war and peace, though not, I think, a very helpful one. However corrupt, venal or incompetent the “Bush junto” (as Gore Vidal refers to it), it is not in this respect much different from others which have occupied similar positions of world-leadership in the past. But Miss Dowd adopts her scornful, no-nonsense, older-sister persona because it allows her to pretend to a false intimacy with those she despises, thus reinforcing the further pretense that she is drawing the curtain on their follies — of which, but for her, the world would presumably have remained in ignorance. This pose may not produce as much enlightenment as it does entertainment for those with a taste for it, but it is not inconsistent with the duties and privileges of an op ed column. Now, however, it has become so fashionable as to be almost routine among those who comment on the issues of the day — so much so that it is even beginning to appear in contexts where the newspaper purports to speak institutionally.

There is a long American and democratic tradition of refusing to our political leaders the sort of exaggerated deference once expected by their old-world predecessors, but the condition of doing away with the orders of nobility and, with them, an arcane and socially significant hierarchy of forms of address, was the entitlement of all, from the meanest to the most exalted in our republic, to the humble but honest honorific “Mr.” That was the reason why the Times stuck to it for so long. Now, even before that newspaper’s institutional descent to the smear of proclaiming Mr Libby guilty of a “smear,” or of covering up a smear, of Ambassador Wilson or his wife (he was found guilty of lying to the grand jury about what he had said and when and to whom he had said it, not of slandering anybody), the Times was already advertising its preparedness to discard the most elementary principles of courtesy and respect in public debate in pursuit of its own political agenda.

Does this suggest that, maybe, the media was out to get “Scooter”? Oh, not as himself. He didn’t matter. They’d far rather have had Messrs Rove or Cheney in the dock. But at least the thorough disgrace and humiliation of someone in his position would lend a bit of credence to their long-term project of discrediting the Bush administration. That this project is not something that they any longer feel it necessary to make more than perfunctory efforts to hide is an indication both of the unchallenged power and arrogance of the media and of their disregard for the rules of civility which were once thought necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic polity in which honorable partisans might be expected to hold strongly opposed views. The same was made clear by a light-hearted piece that ran in the Style section of the Washington Post on the day after the verdict called “Memo to Self: Forget It.” At the bottom of a list of things the anonymous wag who wrote it imagines Mr Libby might want to try harder to remember is to “Get tougher nickname than ‘Scooter.’”

Without the implicit assumption, born of the fragmentation of our political culture, that the partisan view of Mr Libby’s disgrace as simply another black eye for the Bush administration is the only possible one, it would be unimaginable for anyone to suppose that it would be entertaining to readers not only to make a joke out of the destruction of a man’s career and reputation but also of his potential rape and physical abuse in prison. At least on its editorial page, the Post showed a bit more restraint. Not only did the editorialist refer to Mr Libby by his proper name, but he also attempted to take an even-handed approach to the significance of his conviction:

The fall of this skilled and long-respected public servant is particularly sobering because it arose from a Washington scandal remarkable for its lack of substance. It was propelled not by actual wrongdoing but by inflated and frequently false claims, and by the aggressive and occasionally reckless response of senior Bush administration officials — culminating in Mr. Libby’s perjury. . . Mr. Wilson’s case has besmirched nearly everyone it touched. The former ambassador will be remembered as a blowhard. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby were overbearing in their zeal to rebut Mr. Wilson and careless in their handling of classified information. Mr. Libby’s subsequent false statements were reprehensible. And Mr. Fitzgerald has shown again why handing a Washington political case to a federal special prosecutor is a prescription for excess. Mr. Fitzgerald was, at least, right about one thing: The Wilson-Plame case, and Mr. Libby’s conviction, tell us nothing about the war in Iraq.

It must go without saying around the Post’s editorial offices, as around the psychiatrist’s office, that there is always fault on both sides, but that is not a tenable position in this case. The editorial might as well have taken the more usual media line that it was all the administration’s fault, for to say that it’s the fault both of prosecutorial over-zealousness and of an “aggressive” response to Mr Wilson’s acknowledged lies is incoherent. If they were lies (as the Post says they were) it was not “aggressive” on the part of the administration to try to counter them but rather a response to aggression.

But the official Democratic line that “This verdict brings accountability at last for official deception and the politics of smear and fear,” (Senator John F. Kerry) was also the media’s. No surprise there, then. Even The Times of London thoughtlessly follows the lead of the American press in writing that “the verdict is likely to increase suspicions among a growing number of Americans that the US was misled over Iraq” — yet another indication that this was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course suspicions will increase if they are continually reported without any reference to the facts that would allay them. The prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, did not offer any evidence about misleading or no misleading by anyone in the administration over Iraq but only on the arcane and entirely separate matter of when Mr Libby first heard about Mrs Wilson’s place of employment, and from whom. Yet again and again the media attributed vast and unjustified significance to such comparatively trifling questions of fact. Thus Mr Lewis in The New York Times:

Testimony at the trial showed that Mr. Wilson’s criticisms had alarmed and angered Bush administration officials because they amounted to a direct attack on what had been the principal reason for invading Iraq: the claim that Saddam Hussein had an active program of developing unconventional weapons. Critics said Ms. Wilson’s identity as a C.I.A. officer was leaked to punish her husband for his criticisms.

Likewise, Carol Leonnig and Amy Goldstein in the Washington Post claimed that “The trial highlighted the nation’s divisions over the war, the Bush White House’s intolerance of critics and the uneasy symbiosis between an elite tier of Washington journalists and their confidential sources inside the government.”

“Critics”? What critics? As so often, when a reporter uses this word — and always, we might almost say, when no specific critics are named — it is a mere gesture in the direction of the outdated standard which once dictated that he was not permitted to introduce his own opinions into a news story. Ambassador Wilson himself is identified as a critic of administration policies as the set-up to a discreditable account of how the administration dealt with such “critics.” There is no mention of the fact that they were and are legion, and that the Ambassador’s criticism would have meant no more than anyone else’s if he hadn’t pretended to a standing he was not entitled to as the administration’s own, hand-picked representative, sent to assess one of several intelligence claims about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq before the invasion. This was an arrant falsehood, as we learned very early on, and the “smear” of nepotism against his mission to Niger was in fact the truth. He was chosen on the recommendation of his wife and without the knowledge or approval of the administration, which he subsequently falsely insinuated had ignored the advice of its own emissary.

In other words, political considerations aside, Ambassador Wilson should have been discredited in the way that Mr Libby, Vice President Cheney and perhaps others were attempting to discredit him — as Mr Fitzgerald himself implicitly recognized when he declined to prosecute anybody for the alleged “smear.” Yet political considerations never can be put aside in such matters, and the campaign of leaking against even the most unfair and unjustified of the administration’s critics could only have been a mistake. It gave the appearance which the media subsequently were predictably swift to exploit of pettiness and vindictiveness. By the same token, however, the prosecutor should have seen the inevitable political consequences of bringing a prosecution even on such a narrow range of charges as those lodged against Mr Libby. Though in themselves, Mr Libby’s “lies” could hardly bear much political weight, Mr Fitzgerald should have seen that the political enemies of the President, including most of the media, would assume that the case for wrongdoing over Iraq had been proved.

And, indeed, so much more. It was equally foreseeable that one juror, a former reporter for The Washington Post would seize the chance of celebrity the trial afforded him and make headlines by suggesting, shamefully, his eagerness to convict many more than Mr Libby, and on evidence that was not presented as well as that which was. Grandly offering to speak for the rest of the jury as well as himself, Mr Denis Collins said: “We’re not saying that we didn’t think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of. But it seemed like he was . . . the fall guy” for some much larger conspiracy. “It was said a number of times, ‘What are we doing with this guy here? Where’s Rove, where’s — you know, where are these other guys?’” Once again, there is no warrant whatsoever for such a view. In fact, there is less than no warrant. As David Frum noted, this was a conspiracy to leak which apparently involved everyone in the administration except the man who actually did the leaking, Richard Armitage, whom even the media didn’t attempt to represent as a Bush toady.

The readiness of the jury to believe in conspiracies going far beyond the evidence was a tribute to the work of the media hyping of the leak story from the beginning — hyping that was still going on in the pages of The New York Times, whose significance-hunting was of a kind that used to be more associated with the likes of The Nation or Mother Jones than the Grey Lady. The verdict, said the Times editorialist, “was another reminder of how precious the American judicial system is, at a time when it is under serious attack from the same administration Mr. Libby served. That administration is systematically denying the right of counsel, the right to evidence and even the right to be tried to scores of prisoners who may have committed no crimes at all.” So even when it applauds the workings of our system of justice, The Times cannot forbear to take the occasion to reiterate the left-wing claim that the judicial system is “under attack” as a result of the government’s attempt to isolate foreign agents bent on “asymmetrical warfare” against the U.S. Yet it does so without quite giving voice to the underlying assumption in this claim, namely that terrorists are or ought to be treated as being indistinguishable from any ordinary American citizen accused of shoplifting or cheating on his income tax — or, for that matter, “lying” to an over-zealous prosecutor later revealed to have sought his conviction on merely political grounds.

For Patrick Fitzgerald was obviously not sorry about the politicization of the case, and in fact contributed to it himself when, having found nothing substantive with which to charge anyone, he clung to the merely procedural charge against Mr Libby for fear of coming up empty-handed in such a high-profile investigation. Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, he announced in his summing up to the jury that “there is a cloud over what the Vice President did” even though he had no evidence to present them of any wrong-doing on Mr Cheney’s part. His insinuation that Mr Libby’s lies had prevented him from exposing such wrong-doing (“We didn’t put that cloud there. That cloud remains because the defendant obstructed justice and lied about what happened”) did not hold water either, for if the “lies” were exposed as such, then they could no longer be an obstruction and he would be free to indict Mr Cheney or anyone else thus exposed — if he had any evidence against them.

That he did not suggested that this “cloud” was merely a smokescreen of shameful and politically-motivated bluster designed to disguise the fact that the Libby trial was a blot on the record of American democracy much more serious than the one it suffered from Kenneth Starr’s prosecutions brought against President Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes. In each case, these were matters that should never have made their way into the public realm, let alone the courts or the most solemn fora of government and would not have done so but for the same breakdown in our sense of public decorum that produced, at a much more trivial level, The New York Times’s editorializing about a man it condescended to call “Scooter” — or The Washington Post’s light-hearted banter about the possible sexual abuse of a man so nicknamed.

But that’s war for you: honorable combat ordinarily gives way to savagery when the stakes are represented as being supremely high. So how high are they, then? Though no one was saying so, it was pretty clear that at some level the trial and conviction of Mr Libby was as near as the Democrats could get (so far) to payback for the Republicans’ impeachment of Mr Clinton over the Lewinsky affair — which in turn was payback for the Democrats’ attempt to destroy the reputation of Clarence Thomas. Talk about a cycle of violence! You’ve got to wonder if such Liliputian wars will one day make our grandchildren laugh at us — or if, even more scarily, the politics of scandal, media hyperbole and celebrity tittle-tattle is the only kind of politics our played-out civilization is capable of anymore. Either way, the rest of us would seem to have at least as much to be ashamed of as I. Lewis Libby.

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