Ezy Reading: Scooter Libby and Defending By Misdirecting

Evan Kanarakis

If there’s one matter we can concede amid the furore over President Bush’s recent intervention to spare former White House aide I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby from prison it is that his action was largely expected. For all the voices of mock-shock, let’s be honest. The only real surprise here was perhaps the timing of it, and yet we can’t have been that taken aback to expect that Bush  — and Cheney, in particular, the man for whose office Libby effectively fell on his sword —  were going to allow him to languish in jail until the White House felt it was ‘politically and by-the-polls more agreeable’ to announce a release. The fact is, unless a significant miracle takes place, Bush is going to remain deeply unpopular until the end of his term in office, so why wait another month or six months or a full year to commute Libby’s sentence when the negative reaction to such a move, paired with his already faltering credibility as a leader was going to create a stink now and later?

Regardless of whether the decision is deemed by the public to be right or wrong, one trait George Bush has proven time and time again is that no matter how sizeable and significant the voices of opposition or reason, if he has it in his mind to do something, then dang it, he’ll do it — to hell with everyone else. Witness opposition to his invasion of Iraq, the ‘thoughtful consideration’ he gave the Iraq Study Group’s proposals (only now, finally being begrudgingly implemented in part because of necessity, not desire), and even his plan on immigration, a matter that lost him support within his own party. Indeed, anyone who claims surprise when Bush eventually offers Libby a full pardon further down the track is blind to Bush’s inherent nature and his likely course of action to come.

No, what really rankles in this whole messy, disingenuous affair is the kind of defence that conservatives have been putting forward as an excuse for Bush’s action. It’s nothing new in Washington to see politicians asked one question and then spend fifteen minutes ‘answering’ that question without addressing the heart of a query- you can catch this frankly impressive game any weekend on Meet The Press. And, in a similar vein, it’s nothing new for either political party to fire off flares away from the eye of a storm in the hope of distracting attention from the truth of a matter. Sometimes this comes in the form of total distractions — keeping the people happy and diverted with ‘priority’ red herrings, like Bush choosing to use a State of the Union address delivered during war-time to raise the matter of ‘steroids in sports’ or ‘returning to the moon’. If this Presidency were being played out in Ancient Rome the government would be staging more and more games and gladiatorial fights as to dampen ill news from the front lines. Nowadays they try to lure us with talk of a renewed space program. I suppose even a steroid-scandal-embattled World Wrestling Federation has more allure than anything similar the White House could drum up in the hope of their own ‘gladiatorial distractions’.

But the easiest, most mindless defence in all political gamesmanship is to simply blame the opposition for one’s own missteps. Most commonly this shows up in statements akin to schoolyard tactics and a five-year-old’s cries to a scowling teacher of, “Well he did it first!” Libby was convicted by a fair and impartial jury free of political considerations and was sentenced by a Ronald Reagan-appointed judge to a sentence that was typical and common for an individual guilty of obstruction of justice. Bush claimed he “respected” the court’s decision, he just thought it was a bit “too harsh” for his ol’ pal Scooter. What a wonderful precedent to set for the nation. There’s little doubt this generated uproar. And yet, the swift response from conservatives has been to say, “But look at Clinton’s Presidential pardons.”

It is indisputable that Bill Clinton’s final hour pardons of 140 criminals and his commutation of 36 sentences are riddled with controversy and remains a clear black mark on his Presidential legacy. But where, in any conversation about Libby, are Clinton’s past actions even remotely relevant? Is it only when we have a non-Democrat or non-Republican or non-partisan who can clearly be defined as ‘third party neutral’ and free from his own party’s ‘tainted’ past that one can engage successfully in discourse as to the rights and wrongs of Bush’s actions?

There is undoubtedly some added political advantage for Republicans in invoking the Clinton defence – it spares the current crop of Republican candidates from answering the difficult question of ‘Would you pardon Libby if given the chance?’ and it forces Hilary Clinton to address her husband’s past pardons mid-campaign (some of which she is arguably, closely connected to). At the same time, it is a potentially treacherous line of attack for Republicans as well. In an America where collective memory had somewhat faded over Clinton’s pardons, do conservatives really want the matter of their politically motivated, witch-hunt impeachment of Clinton to return to the fore? Certainly in the face of many of Bush’s indiscretions during his Presidency -especially the matter of Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as causation for war- the matter of Clinton lying under oath about an alleged affair, though no less a crime, seems rather petty indeed.

If we must, let’s deal with a reassessment of Clinton’s pardons on another day. For now, however, one has to wonder sometimes where in all of this politicking and media wrangling a core understanding and concession of ‘right over wrong’ has been left out of American government. Excuses and deflections don’t answer the issue at hand. They generate plenty of smoke, certainly, but the death of accountability and moral culpability in American politics — on both sides of the ideological fence — are one of the most significant and tragic developments during this Presidency that will have a regrettable impact for years to come.

Ezy Reading can be contacted at feedback@thecud.com.au, just include ‘ATTENTION: EZY READING’ in the subject line of your email.