Arthur Herman, often referred to here, describes in Commentary the context of the pursuit of Scooter Libby. I am curious about how those more knowledgeable than I see the article.
But, aside from his central argument, I was struck by the remarkable picture with which he closes.
On October 11, 2003, when the media witch hunt in the Plame case was at its height, there was a Cabinet meeting at the White House. When reporters were invited in to ask Bush a question about the investigation, Bush said he wanted anyone in his government who knew who had leaked Plame’s name to speak up. Sitting a couple of chairs away was Richard Armitage, the man who had done it. Sitting beside the president was Colin Powell, to whom Armitage had confessed days earlier.
They said nothing—and kept silent for three long years. By the time Armitage admitted publicly that he had been the leaker in September 2006, Patrick Fitzgerald’s monstrously successful and spectacularly dishonest war on Scooter Libby’s job, reputation, finances, and legal innocence was well on its way to its morally depraved triumph.
He’s hyperbolic, perhaps – spectacularly dishonest war and morally depraved. But if he is right, many died, many will die because of that moment. What could be more dire?
But that moment also tells us what we accept in those who rise in the ranks of our government. They were hollow men, occupying chairs of distinction. Given a test, they blinked. Perhaps they blinked because they were at base cowards – would anyone want the anger of a media stirred up? Perhaps they blinked because they found Libby’s embarrassment useful in their own petty game of power – not argument, but power. What we do know is that they blinked.
They, especially Powell, had a media-driven reputation. Did they want to put it at risk? The adoration of that media is seductive, of course. Or was their pettiness a desire to simply win a debate, whether by force of argument or distraction of the other side immaterial? This was a moment when our country deserved a real debate from those at that table, ones using facts & beliefs, assessments and intuition to back theories clearly enunciated. But, such an openness comes hard to those used to the easier ad hominem and preferring the stacked deck, those used to praise rather than probing.
Of course, Washington and Lincoln are gauges too high for us to reach, but they aren’t bad goals. And this reminded me of the observation of Brookhiser on Washington in his Founding Father.
Washington’s morality enjoined him to be courteous; he was goaded to good behavior, and to doing well, by concern for his reputation.
Washington and his contemporaries thought of reputation as a thing that might be destroyed or sullied – some valuable cargo carried in the hold of the self. When Knox wrote Lafayette that Washington, in going to the Constitutional Convention had ‘committed’ his fame ‘to the mercy of events,’ they were like two merchants discussing the risky venture of a third. The cargo was precious because reputation was held to be a true measure of one’s character – indeed, in some sense, identical to it. We worry about our authenticity – about whether our presentation reflects who we ‘really’ are. Eighteenth-century Americans attended more to the outside story and were less avid to drive putty knives between the outer and the inner man . . . . Every man had a character to maintain: every man was a character actor.
Most of us are tested – and in some cases tested often. Is this grade a fair one, I may ask, or do I stand by a bid for a job that I made too hastily and will now lose money on or will I stick with this admonition to a child or will I waver? I’ve been tested and not always lived up to that test. Do I stand behind what I’ve said? Well, I try to. But we in the humanities are always better off if we consider the words representing reality – and judge them by what works, what is. When words do, indeed, represent reality, they are weighty and powerful. And that is why we read – to experience those moments of insight about history, our own lives, others. If Powell’s objections to Libby’s arguments had the force of truth, they would have had far greater power than merely removing a rival. Of course, Herman’s belief, one that makes sense given the outcomes, was that Powell’s objections were weak and plan flawed. But we will never know how such arguments would have been made or would have succeeded? What did happen, happened, in part, through default.
Our leaders should be held to the standard of the best of us (the best of each individually and the whole). Powell and Armitage are small players in the sweep of Washington power. To say that the Obamas and the Clintons are no Washingtons is a bit obvious. That a majority of us accept the fact that their words are no indicator of their actions and they prefer to lie is troubling in a way that speaks to us more as a country than that they do it. That not only did we twice elect Clinton’s husband, twice elect Obama, but more than half of us seem to accept Hillary as a viable candidate for a fifth such term. (Even if we say, well, we wouldn’t vote for her, we don’t see her as dismissible – she isn’t.)
As their president asked for the truth, Powell and Armitage committed an omission, but it was yet another indication of our fall from that ideal. Our forefathers warned us about man’s tendency toward weakness and greed, lust for power and lust for revenge. They would not be surprised. But it is our duty to point out the blinking, the lies, the ear marks, the slush funds. We must accept the fact we, too, have blinked as a nation: we had to, to reach the level in which Obama’s lust for power has led to a shredding of the Constitution and the Clinton’s lust for money uses the techniques of a Mafia protection racket and the hypocrisy of the most sleazy of snake oil salesmen (the % given to charity makes the whole enterprise bitterly laughable, if it didn’t contribute to so much dissipation of funds and energy – ones sorely needed by their “projects”.)
15 thoughts on “Herman on Scooter Libby”
Many people, in my observation, reach positions of power by being wiley. Always ready to take credit, always ready to throw someone under the bus to ensure they receive no blame. They often lie casually as long as it gets them what they want at the moment. Power is their reward for doing it successfully.
Compare the people who start a successful company – the best of them being people like Elon Musk – with the folks running Lockheed Martin or GM. They’re different kinds of people who got where they are through completely different paths. Completely different personality types. I think the same is true for the founders of the republic versus those who occupy the positions of power today.
When moral relativism rather than moral absolutes serve as foundation, liberty will surely vanish. That this will involve a process, that it will take time, does not make it less certain.
Elon Musk seems quite good at farming the feds for subsidies. I’m not sure sure he belongs in the ranks with Donald Douglas or Leroy Grumman or the Dodge brothers.
I just finished the biography of the Wright Brothers. There were pioneers and entrepreneurs.
I believe that is a concise summary of the process. The constitution was written with the structure it had to curb that seemingly inevitable process of those who use the words of virtue to gain personal power and direct others (for their own good, poor dears). While it slowed down the timetable, we now know that it was incapable of functioning as intended in the face of decline in virtue among our elites. Thanks for the clarity of your thoughts. Really made me think about how the incremental process of breaking down our moral and civic cohesion has resulted in our impending doom, whatever its form.
Armitage and Powell deserve notoriety for their behavior but will not receive it. Another person who deserves blame was the late columnist Robert Novak, Armitage’s conduit for the leak about Plame. Novak, who was within a few years of retirement, failed to reveal that Armitage was the leaker, even as Libby sat in jail. Yet Novak was left alone by the journalistic conceit that treats the protection of sources as higher in value than the protection of life, limb or freedom for victimized individuals such as Libby.
It’s obvious that a significant fraction of high govt officials and journalists is corrupt, yet a large part of the voting public doesn’t know or care and continues to elect liars and crooks. These voters deserve blame too.
I still wonder why Novak, a guy with the reputation of taking no crap from anyone, sat on that story. I suspect he was threatened by FitzGerald but it was still odd.
Of course Fitzgerald deserves the most blame because he indicted Libby despite knowing that Armitage was the leaker. Fitzgerald wanted Libby to cut a deal and implicate Cheney, and Libby wouldn’t do it. If I recall, Fitzgerald was a nominal Republican, and perhaps this was part of the reason why he escaped scrutiny from Republican pols who should have been all over him. And Bush deserves blame for not pardoning Libby early in the process, as Cheney wanted. There is plenty of corruption and failure to go around. The only people who distinguished themselves in a good way were Libby and Cheney.
Bush eventually commuted Libby’s sentence, which is better than nothing. The next Republican president should pardon Libby.
“I do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic …”
Sorry, former sworn military officers, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, you broke an oath that does not expire. Armitage was a “Ring Knocker” who should have known more than most what the oath means, along with the sworn loyalty to obey the Commander in Chief.
Both should be terribly ashamed at denying their oath of office. They were bound by duty and honor to disclose their knowledge when asked. They failed.
I don’t recall all the details but generally, in an interview (cspan?) Judith Miller claimed that information Fitzgerald took from notes of a conversation she had with Libby, was dishonestly used to impeach Libby’s testimony, and Fitzgerald knew that when he did it. Her faulty memory at the time contributed to Fitzgerald’s ability to recast the statements the way he wanted them to read. Only later did she realize that her notes were taken down before the events in question and could not have referred to Plame. Bush’s shabby treatment of Libby is item 4 of 6 in the indictment I would like to make of that man.
Correction: Reading the Herman piece reminds that Libby didn’t actually go to jail. However, this fact doesn’t change anything.
Libby is not a white knight as he was Marc Rich’s lawyer in the pardon negotiations. Holder wrote the pardon for Clinton to sign but Libby probably did not do his part for free.
Rich wasn’t a particularly bad guy. He was a fugitive wanted for evading oil price controls, malum prohibitum and no longer even prohibitum since Reagan had decontrolled oil prices in 1981. I don’t blame him for seeking a pardon, and I don’t blame Libby for serving as his lawyer. Clinton’s corrupt sale of pardons is another, more serious, matter.
Rich had a few more peccadilloes, such as assisting Iran in evading sanctions. I don’t believe he killed anybody.
Certainly pardoning the FALN was Clinton’s worst act. Read Days of Rage to understand just how bad.
I had forgotten about Rich and Iran.
While it is worthwhile to study America’s founders for examples of what could be, the current situation is better understood by studying court politics in Renaissance Italy or Bourbon France or Hapsburg Austria, where people got ahead by scheming to ally themselves with rich patrons and then to undercut their rivals for the goodwill of the sovereign. Those were the talents that were rewarded, and unsurprisingly the people with those talents were the successes. Any connection with the ability to conduct public affairs for the good of the larger polity was coincidental, and depended entirely on whether the King recognized it and cared.
Then as now there was not much idea of a “public interest.” Then, the idea did not yet exist, now it has atrophied to the point of disappearing.
No surprise about Armitage, he was long known as a schemer. Disappointed in Powell, though.
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