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”.)