WASHINGTON— Now six plus years into the presidency of George W. Bush, I think we can discern a theme in his administration, one that the historians will pass on to future generations. I write as a historian myself here, in fact as a “presidential historian,” if I may appropriate a title used in modern historiography. Some will scoff at my claim, but in recent years I have written about as many books on presidential high jinks as Michael Beschloss, who is frequently called a “presidential historian” though he is not as amused by the presidency as I am.
Perhaps this is because I have mostly written about President Bill Clinton, the modern presidency’s closest approximation to the late and laughable President Warren G. Harding. At this point in Clinton’s administration several themes were discernible. There was the administration’s effort to avoid the prosecutors — as many as seven different officers of the court were out to get the President, his wife, and various cabinet officials. There was the President’s effort to avoid impeachment and, worse, conviction. Less celebrated, but surely a long-standing theme of President Clinton’s presidency (and for that matter of his whole adult life), was his effort to avoid various ghastly sexually transmitted diseases. It is increasingly likely that in the years to come the Clinton administration will figure as prominently in high school history classes as in high school sex education classes, and the lessons to be derived from the latter will probably be more beneficial to the commonweal.
Now in the spring of 2007 I think a perceptible theme has emerged in the Bush administration. Dramatists might entitle it “The Hunt for Karl Rove.” Since the 2001 inauguration, multitudes of journalists have set out to snare him. Entire congressional staffs have pursued him. Wily fellow that he is, Rove has evaded every trap. Called five times before the grand jury in the Valerie Plame burlesque, he never lapsed into a serious misstatement and certainly not into the perjury that cooked President Clinton’s goose. Back he went to the White House every time with a smile on his face and doubtless a head full of stratagems with which to flummox the Democrats further. I would not be surprised to read in Rove’s memoir that he actually enjoyed the grand jury appearances. They filled the liberal Democrats with such hope. They left them in such despair.
At this very minute there are at least two congressional investigations hot on his trail. One is investigating whether the Republican National Committee set up separate e-mail accounts for Rove and his henchpersons in the White House to use. Another is investigating whether these desperados arranged political briefings for political appointees in the government. Both investigations will probably find that Rove and his cronies did precisely what they are suspected of doing. Yet once again Rove will go scot-free. The problem the investigators have is that there is nothing wrong with Rove’s actions. They are perfectly legal and, at least in the case of the e-mail accounts, required by law.
What we have here is the criminalization of politics. Nothing Rove has done is criminal, but by dragging him before congressional hearings and even better grand juries his political opponents hope that they will catch him in a misstatement that can be prosecuted as perjury. Fred Barnes, writing in the Weekly Standard, put it just so: “The Democratic strategy now is to criminalize that success [Bush’s election triumphs] by treating normal political conduct by the Bush Administration, spearheaded by Rove, as a series of criminal acts.” Barnes goes on to cite the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the Hon. Rahm Emanuel, declaiming that the Bush administration’s crimes surpass those of the Nixon administration in Watergate. “In many ways, what we have seen from this administration,” says Emanuel, “is far more extensive than that scandal.”
There is a brazenness for Emanuel, who gamely served in the scandalous Clinton administration, to harangue the ethics of either the Bush administration or even the Nixon administration. Emanuel’s boss lied under oath, obstructed justice, and was found in contempt of court. He paid fines, had his law license suspended, and signed affidavits admitting to wrongdoing. No one forced him to lie under oath or to obstruct justice. Even the heinous Nixon never lied under oath.
Meanwhile, the crafty Rove continues to outfox those who wish to make it a crime to practice politics adroitly and successfully. Frankly, “The Hunt for Karl Rove” might make a very good title for a history of the Bush administration. It is vastly more amusing than “How the Democrats Deserted Our Army in the Field.”
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