Eminentoes

Peter Pettigrew Politics From the Land of Powell

An ex-Colin Powell aide displays the arrogance of the Washington game in Vanity Fair.

By 1.6.09

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If you've spent any time with the Harry Potter series, you have learned of Peter Pettigrew. It was Pettigrew, we learn, who betrayed Potter's beloved parents James and Lilly to the evil Lord Voldemort. He did it on the sly, blaming someone else (Sirius Black), who took the rap. Pettigrew, pretending to be dead, hid himself successfully for 12 years by transforming himself into...

We'll come back to that in a moment.

Let us consider here the most recent fulminations of one Lawrence Wilkerson.

Well out of office, his boss, ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, having long since been politely sacked by President George W. Bush in favor of Condi Rice, Powell's one-time chief of staff has surfaced once more. According to a report in the Associated Press, retired Army Colonel Wilkerson, now ensconced at the College of William and Mary as the Adjunct Harriman Professor of Government, has deigned to take a brief moment away from teaching kids about national security to show them how the Big Boys do it. He has participated in a forthcoming Vanity Fair article described as an "oral history" of the Bush administration. This is presented in the notoriously Bush-hating glossy by various ex-Bush aides who have abandoned their chief for one reason or another and, as with Wilkerson, can't help themselves from dumping vitriol on the man without whom the closest they would get to Vanity Fair is a fading copy in the dentist's office.

Wilkerson, you see, believes George W. Bush to be a "Sarah Palin-like president" (to Wilkerson this means stupid, to others -- lots of others -- it will translate that Wilkerson is a few sandwiches short of the standard full picnic basket). With not the slightest sense of irony that he has just described Barack Obama perfectly, the ex-Powell aide says Bush's innocence on foreign affairs "allowed everybody to believe [Bush] was going to be protected by this national security-elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire." (In the Obama era substituting for the "elite" of Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and Rice will be Biden, Clinton, Gates and Jones. Wilkerson is apparently satisfied these folks can keep the man barely four years out of the Illinois State Senate on track.) He reserves his particular disdain for Powell's longtime bureaucratic rival Vice President Cheney, calling Cheney "the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur" he, Wilkerson, had ever met.

Well. That takes guts, no?

No.

These latest Wilkerson comments are actually somewhat mild, if the sentiment he expresses is not new. In 2005 he went after Cheney over the treatment of al Qaeda detainees. He also did an anti-Bush commentary for a documentary film entitled Why We Fight, the film winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Robert Redford's left-wing Sundance film festival. In 2006 he appeared on PBS to stand by his accusation that Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld led a cabal hijacking the decision-making process. "I'm worried and I would rather have the discussion and the debate in the process we've designed than I would a diktat from a dumb strongman," he pontificated. Bush in Wilkerson's eyes, you see, is the "dumb strongman." Powell's chief of staff, responsible for seeing to it that the Secretary had accurate information, also called the pre-war Iraq intelligence a "hoax." In 2007. That year he took to the airwaves of the BBC to trash Bush and Cheney once again, complaining that an offer the Powell-led State Department received from Iran to help stabilize Iraq was refused by Cheney, who invoked what Wilkerson disdainfully called "the old mantra of 'We don't talk to evil.'" By May of 2007 Wilkerson was proposing that both Bush and Cheney be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. And oh yes, one can't forget his turn under the lights on The Colbert Report.

THE PATTERN IS NOT hard to miss here. None of these remarks or the beliefs behind them were made public by Wilkerson during Powell's tenure as Secretary of State. It is pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that Colonel Wilkerson just didn't have the, as they say, cojones to go public with all his feelings while actually serving his Commander-in-Chief as a presumed loyal and trusted advisor. Not from Wilkerson was America to hear a thunderous "I QUIT" and a slamming of the door to the State Department in 2003 or 2004. Now that would have gotten some attention from the likes of Vanity Fair! Not to mention MSNBC and CNN and a loving profile in the New York Times! But alas, no go. Nope. Not a peep from the Colonel. He apparently just didn't have the gumption to walk away from the A-list dinner parties, the jets, the entourage, the conversations that began with lines like "The Secretary believes…"

Which brings us all to an assessment of just what passes for brains and sophistication from the non-"Palin-like" types in the Washington establishment like the oh-so very smart and savvy Wilkerson. Can it really be believed that Wilkerson, possessed of an otherwise admirable military record, had suffered such a massive intelligence failure of his own that he just had no idea what was going on from his perch outside Secretary Powell's seventh floor suite? Can it really be believed that he had no idea that both the President and the Vice President were up the avenue committing what Wilkerson now insists were impeachable crimes? If this was so obvious in 2003 and 2004 then Wilkerson had to know these crimes were not being committed in a vacuum but with the full knowledge of Secretary of State Powell and Wilkerson himself. Yet neither Powell nor Wilkerson had the wit to say a thing to the American people?

Or is there something else going on, a something else that is as routine in Washington as it is distasteful? That something would be a lust for power -- its perks, its privileges -- that just weakens the knees of once-presumed honorable men like Wilkerson to the point of bending if not shattering their reputation for integrity and courage. Or, something also not unheard of, is this just a plain old-fashioned desire now to be popular with the in-crowd in the media? To play the sadder-but-wiser man for the scribblers and commentators who have so assiduously contributed to the positive image of the General and who despise George Bush and Dick Cheney?

The irony of Wilkerson's Palin reference is too good to be missed. So good the Witless Wilkerson (to give him a Potter-esque name) doesn't get this either. Governor Palin, after all, got where she is precisely by going public with charges of corruption against the Alaskan GOP establishment. She put herself, her family, and her reputation waaaaaaaaaaay out there on a limb when she went public with her charges when it counted. No cone of silence for Sarah Palin, who has evidenced more moral courage in one polished fingernail than Wilkerson managed throughout his entire State Department tenure. Yet Witless Wilkerson, now busy looking down his nose, sees not a thing wrong with going public well after he -- or his boss -- could have done a jot or a tittle about events that he now says so disturbed him. And by the sheerest of coincidence, you see, Wilkerson's public musings are to the greater good of post-government publicity from the glossy chroniclers of Hollywood starlets. But he must be so proud, no? Cate Blanchett and Larry Wilkerson together between covers! Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

ONE CAN EASILY disagree with Wilkerson's view of Bush, Cheney, and Iraq yet accept that there are people who, in good faith, opposed the war. What one finds impossible to accept is the self-aggrandizing nature of Wilkerson's belated and decidedly post-government comments -- their timing, like that of ex-Bush press secretary Scott McClellan suspiciously many days late (yet conveniently many dollars to the good in McClellan's case).

Wilkerson seems oblivious to the idea that his comments paint not only himself but Secretary Powell into a newer version of what was said of Richard Nixon during Watergate. Either, said the liberals (and others), Nixon was corrupt (if he knew about Watergate and was a participant of some sort) or he was utterly stupid (if he had no idea what was going on around him in his name). It was a lose-lose proposition that meant Nixon had to go. In the Wilkerson version, either he and his boss Powell knew all about these high crimes being committed by Bush, Cheney and company (in which case they should have done something about it post haste) -- or in not knowing what was going on around them every day proved Powell and company as little short of spectacularly incompetent in their respective posts at the State Department.

Yet Powell himself received a great deal of favorable press during his tenure. And still does, as the mainstream media lapped up his endorsement of Obama. How can this be if Powell and his staff did such a lousy job? It is one of the hardiest if hoary rules of thumb in Washington that there is a direct relationship between positive press clips and leaks. The revelation that Powell Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in fact the leaker of Valerie Plame's CIA identity to columnist Robert Novak provided a quite accidental look-see for Washington outsiders into how the Powell people played the game, even if Novak wasn't into the burnish-the-Powell-portrait game. It was decidedly not an accident -- nor the action of a "dumb strongman" -- that Bush refused to give the Powell-Wilkerson clique a second tour of duty at State. The President had to suspect or know outright what the game was. That whatever the real object with Powell and his entourage, to give this clique another four years in which they could quietly, on a not-for-attribution basis, continue to trash their own president in precisely the kind of terms Wilkerson suddenly began spouting in public after his and Powell's departure from Foggy Bottom would be a big mistake.

Apparently Wilkerson does not have the wit to see the image he has begun carving in stone for not only himself but for Powell. Out of curiosity, one wonders if he is giving an accurate lesson in just how The Game is played in Washington to all those eager William and Mary students. The lesson goes something like this: Stay inside by staying quiet; if you think your principles are being violated, well, a drink served by an Air Force steward on one of those glistening Air Force One look-alikes will salve your conscience as you hurdle the globe on your latest Important Mission. Then, when forced out, go public and get on The Colbert Report and into the pages of Vanity Fair. All you have to do is trash the people who gave you your high position in the first place. No big deal. Trash your principles while inside and trash the people who trusted you with an important inside job when you're outside. No problem! See kids?

One suspects at least the kids are not as witless about something like this as their professor.

Oh yes. The character from Harry Potter. Peter Pettigrew hid from his responsibility by disguising himself as a rat. On the other hand, Graydon Carter…ahhh…that would be Lord Voldemort, loved him.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.