Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Handcuffing Scooter

In all the hubbub generated by President Bush's commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence, I found Michael Kinsley's opinion piece "The Lying Game" to sound a balanced, well-reasoned argument. Kinsley begins by drawing a comparison between Libby and former President Bill Clinton's impeachment over lying about the Monica Lewinsky affair. The comparison is unusual in that most (conservative) critics have referenced Clinton not because of Lewinsky but because of the eleventh-hour pardons that Clinton granted to rather unsavory business-type criminals. The comparison is thus really between Clinton and George W. Bush.

But what Kinsley wants to show is that Clinton and Libby both found themselves facing what he calls a "perjury trap": an impossible choice between either lying under oath or "truthfully" answering questions that should not have been asked in the first place. Per Clinton, "He could lie under oath, and be impeached or worse, or he could tell the truth, and embarrass himself and his family, and probably still be impeached or worse." What Kinsley is asking is this: why was Clinton put in such a bind in the first place, when his "offense" was in essence a personal one and (most of us will agree) neither a political nor a security risk in the least. Of course, Newt Gingrich's Republican-controlled Congress thought otherwise, and their rabid, wasteful pursuit of Clinton's sexual peccadilloes was part of a larger smear campaign to discredit the leader of their Democratic rivals. Recollecting that sordid, sorry episode in our political history, I think a lot of us have been left asking, "Impeachment and millions of taxpayer dollars over what?!" How silly.

Kinsley's explanation of Scooter Libby's perjury trap is more complex. Unlike Clinton, Libby was indeed involved in a political and security brouhaha (or cover-up) that had grave implications for U.S. foreign policy: he was "part of the cabal that was conspiring to discredit [former ambassador and Iraq war critic Joseph] Wilson and, more generally, to convince people that Iraq was strewn with nuclear weapons." Although not a major player in that "cabal," Libby's involvement in the process is undeniable, and he merits no sympathy for contributing to the Bush administration's political cover-up and quashing of dissent in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

Despite all of this (and Kinsley makes known his own distaste for Bush, the war in Iraq, etc.), it's Libby's fate to have been handcuffed by a perjury trap that bore some resemblance to Clinton's high-profile case. Either Libby could have lied and committed perjury (which, like Clinton, is what he ended up doing) or he could have told the truth and basically admitted to leaking government secrets to journalists. In both cases, Libby is screwed. He'll go to prison for lying or he'll go to prison for leaking government secrets.

Kinsley's point rests on the notion that Libby's trap is no more acceptable than Clinton's: both were faced with impossible choices, and both were asked questions they shouldn't have been asked. After all, the very press corps that wanted to break the story about the White House leak also wanted to protect their First Amendment "right" to keep their sources (even for government secrets) secret. Kinsley writes, "It takes two to leak. How can it be fair that one party to the leak doesn't even have to testify about it, because leaks are so vital to the First Amendment, while the other party might go to prison for it?" If Libby was posed with a lose-lose situation, then, the news media had a win-win one: Libby was at once gagged (not revealing the actual source for the leak) and held up as an example of this administration's nefariousness.

If Libby had revealed the source of the leak (and who knows if he knows), it would've been seen as a huge blow to the freedom of the press. If he lied about his involvement in the leak (which, again, is what he ended up doing), he would be caught and vilified for taking part in the WMD cover-up. So you see, the news media didn't really want Scooter to talk; they just wanted him to play the role of the fall guy to a tee.

In the end, Kinsley basically wants to point out that the news media had a huge role to play in the Plame-Wilson-Libby fiasco. He wants us to ask questions of the press and not just of this goober named Scooter. Call it an open secret: the press has always been complicit in the affair; there would've been no leak if the news media didn't want it in the first place. So why (just) blame Scooter?

I tend to depart from Kinsley's opinion piece over whether questions about the Plame leak "should" have been asked in the first place. I believe they should have been and that we're better off because they were asked. What Kinsley doesn't seem to acknowledge is that all the confusion surrounding the leak (and yes, the press was knee-deep in the muck) brought to light a deeply troubling, even treasonable, manner of conducting political business by the Bush administration. We are talking about nothing less than the calculated cover-up of information and quashing of dissent which would have challenged the Bush administration's rationale for going to war with Iraq. This stuff is a far cry from a blowjob in the Oval Office. This was and is a matter of war and peace.

And so even though Scooter found himself handcuffed by the situation presented to him, it has to be said that it was a situation that called for direct, public scrutiny and nothing less. The gravity of the leak -- the security-threatening uses to which it was put -- merited, in my opinion, putting the squeeze on Scooter. Perhaps contrary to Kinsley, then, I am willing to distinguish the relative importance of some perjury traps from others. Clinton's trap was a waste of time and taxpayers' money; Libby's revealed something inherently wrong with the way our government has been operating under George W. Bush.

So yes, the news media had their cake and ate it too. But Scooter got his just desserts.

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