Political Hay

Washington Reruns

The second-term scandal has become a fixture in modern American politics. Yawn.

By 7.14.05

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Marx's famous line about history repeating itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, might have been right for its time. But these days, when showbiz trumps everything, history repeats itself in the form of reruns and sequels. Or maybe history is just Law and Order. We go from Ben, Adam and Lennie to Fred Thompson and the blonde. Nothing changes except...the show becomes a bore and everyone pretty much quits watching.

The second-term scandal has become a fixture in modern American politics. Watergate, of course, started it. In Reagan's second term it was Iran-Contra. With Clinton, we got Whitewater/Monica. (Notice a descending curve of dignity and seriousness here?) And now, in Bush's second term, the Washington scriptwriters are trying to make the Karl Rove leak about Valerie Plame into...what?

Hard to know. Harder to care. It all has the feeling of being so old and tired. Karl Rove leaked something to someone. Heaven forefend. The President's political fixer and junkyard dog said something to a reporter in order to wound a political opponent? No, please, say it isn't so.

Presidents and other political powerhouses have always kept someone around to do the dirty work. They are fixers and gut fighters who especially like sucker punching their enemies and then kicking them when they are down. Clinton had his Harold Ickes. Nixon had Charles Colson who, as a reward for his good and faithful service, did some prison time. John F. Kennedy used his brother. These operators are generally kept out of sight, like an old, mean pit bull named Scrap Iron who is missing an ear and is kept chained to the chinaberry tree out back.

One way old Scrap Iron makes his living, and his reputation, is by telling reporters things about his opponents; things, you understand, that these opponents might neglect to mention themselves. Sometimes, these little bits of gossip are true and sometimes they are not. Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have suggested spreading a rumor that an opponent performed certain acts with barnyard animals.

"My, God, Lyndon," a fastidious advisor is supposed to have said, "You can't say that. It ain't true."

"Maybe," said LBJ, "but let's make the sonofabitch deny it."

Karl Rove, it seems, told a journalist something that would embarrass one of his administration's enemies. Turned out, Rove's information was actually true. Still, there has been much furor about the leak. Which is confusing to people who do not study Washington to the exclusion of all but sleeping and eating.

Isn't journalism in Washington these days all about leaks? Aren't leaks the purest coin of the journalistic realm? Didn't we just chant praises of gratitude to an old FBI gumshoe for leaking to Woodward and Bernstein in the original and classic second-term scandal? Why are leaks suddenly a bad thing? And logic tells us that if it weren't for people like Karl Rove, who are willing to do the leaking, then there wouldn't be any leaks. Journalists, especially, ought to be defending Rove and doing everything in their meager power to make sure he isn't fired and doesn't resign.

Still, people are calling for Rove's head. Their argument is with this specific leak which, they say, may have been illegal. Rove may have revealed the name of someone who was working for the CIA under cover. But, it turns out, the identity of this woman was not a secret. Rove told a reporter something that it seems any journalist who wanted to call himself connected already knew. Rove didn't betray a secret because what he told the reporter wasn't secret to begin with.

Still...the people pushing the scandal insist, laws were broken. Specifically, someone may have lied to a grand jury. Among the unwashed, the first reaction to that news will probably be, "Hey, I thought we got over that one during the last scandal."

Still, if laws were broken, says the beyond-the-beltway rube who quit watching Law and Order when Ben was replaced by Jack and has also pretty much lost interest in Washington scandals, then quit screwing around and throw someone in jail.

Turns out they have. There is a reporter doing a stretch for refusing (admirably, I think) to co-operate with the special prosecutor. This seems to make a lot of people even more determined to punish Karl Rove. The outside-the-beltway rube, on the other hand, considers it the best argument yet for doing away with the entire special prosecutor idea and apparatus. Only a lawyer could think it is a good idea to throw New York Times reporters in jail. Plenty of people would think about it and salivate over the possibility, but only a lawyer would actually go through with it. A prosecutor with limited powers, restrained by the sheer number of cases he has to bring is scary enough. Sam Waterston with nothing to do but go after a single target and no limit to the amount of time and money he can spend doing it...that is terrifying.

So, even if some people are dismayed because Karl Rove does not go to jail or lose his job and others are disappointed because only one reporter got thrown in the slammer and not for long enough, some good may come from this whole squalid episode. We may finally give up, for good, worshiping this false god known as the special prosecutor.

Then, Washington journalists, officials, and other insiders can go back to leaking and denying and analyzing what the latest leak means and the identity of the leaker. It's nice that they'll have something to keep them busy and amused. The rest of us, meanwhile, can get on with our lives.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Norman is the author of Riding With Jeb Stuart and the editor of Vermonttiger.com.