Ethics & Public Policy Center

It Takes Two to Scandal

Published in The American Spectator on June 22, 2005



The left is predictably eager to find in the so-called “Downing Street Memo” — in which a British intelligence official wrote back in July of 2002 his impression that President Bush had already decided to go to war in Iraq and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” — “the smoking gun” that will finally turn the Iraq War into the scandal they have been insisting with ever increasing shrillness it has been all along. They have another incentive too, since the fact that the memo was first published in the London Sunday Times on May 1 gives them a scandal twofer. Not only, that is, does the memo reveal the scandal of the Bush presidency, but also the delay in giving it wider currency reveals that of the allegedly “right-wing media.” The insurmountable difficulty they have to face, however, is that you can’t really have a proper political scandal if it’s only a scandal to one side of the political divide.

If, back in the days of Watergate, the Republicans in Congress had merely shrugged their shoulders and refused to co-operate with the investigation of the Watergate break-in and its aftermath, the Democrats would have grown apoplectic about it, but they would probably not have succeeded in forcing President Nixon to resign. It was only the willingness of key Republicans such as Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater to treat it as a scandal that made it one. The Democrats should be particularly alert to this essential datum about scandal because they themselves used it to good effect in l’affaire Lewinsky. The Republicans jumped up and down and screamed until they were blue in the face, but hardly any Democrats broke ranks. They merely shrugged their shoulders and tut-tutted about naughty old Bill. But what were we going to do? Kick him out? As it happened, no. Though they were in the majority, the Republicans failed to remove Clinton from office.

But the Democrats have apparently not profited from their own example, since they are now the ones who are now trying to sell a one-sided scandal without success. The measure of how frustrating this is can be found in the rising temperature of the rhetoric, as if saying that you hate Republicans “and everything they stand for” as Howard Dean did — everything Howard? including patriotism and a strong defense and victory to American arms? — or that the transient discomforts of a small number of prisoners at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay are comparable to the mass murders of a Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, as Senator Dick Durbin did, could somehow make up for the indifference of the hated Republicans to the monstrous iniquities that seem so plain, so unmistakable to them. But this is one of those scandals that you have to believe in in advance in order even to be able to see it.

Not being one of the faithful myself, I find the Downing Street memo a ludicrously inadequate peg to hang a scandal on and nothing at all like (to change the figure) a smoking gun. The mere opinion of a British intelligence officer, however elevated, who was obviously less enthusiastic about the idea of war with Iraq than the Bush administration was, is hardly dispositive as regards any wrong-doing, even if he had made a less ambiguous claim that there was any. Moreover, it was obvious to anyone with eyes to see as early as the summer of 2002 that President Bush was planning to go to war in Iraq — which is why I wrote what I called “the conservative case against” the war in August 2002. It would have been astonishing if people in the White House were not being at least as assiduous as I was about preparing their case for the war.

Or, as a hostile observer might put it, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” — as indeed they are around every policy that has to be sold to the public. That’s how these things work. To find in that fact alone evidence of bad faith on the part of the administration is like saying that a defense attorney is guilty of bad faith for not making the prosecution’s arguments as well as his own. But of course it is not just this that makes Bush, in the eyes of his detractors, guilty of bad faith. They start from that assumption, as they have done almost since he was first elected and the most fervent among them began blithely accusing him of having “stolen” the election. In doing so, they themselves were fitting the facts to the policy, though in the view of most non Bush-haters, I suspect, with even less plausibility than the President made the case for war.

There is another reason, I think, why they are putting so much faith and emotional energy into a dud scandal, and it is suggested by Mark Danner in a piece in the most recent number of the New York Review of Books. Titled “What are you going to do with that,” it is a version of a commencement address that Mr. Danner gave to this year’s graduates of the Department of English at the University of California at Berkeley, an institution at which he himself is a professor. Ostensibly an apologia for the English major — being one, Danner says, “is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned” — the piece quickly degenerates into the sort of standard anti-war, anti-Bush screed in which the NYRB specializes and which is at least one thing that Mr. Danner himself obviously doesn’t expect to be “questioned.” Joining the Downing Street memo to the alleged scandals of the WMD and Abu Ghraib (“to name only two”), he notes: “What is interesting about both of those is that the heart of the scandal, the wrongdoing, is right out in front of us. Virtually nothing of great importance remains to be revealed.” Comparing these new “scandals” to Watergate and more or less all the scandals since, he goes on to discern a trend.

What distinguishes our time — the time of September 11 — is the end of this narrative of scandal….So we have had the revelations; we know what happened. What we don’t have is any clear admission of — or adjudication of — guilt, such as a serious congressional or judicial investigation would give us, or any punishment. Those high officials responsible are still in office. Indeed, not only have they received no punishment; many have been promoted. And we — you and I, members all of the reality-based community — we are left to see, to be forced to see. And this, for all of us, is a corrupting, a maddening, but also an inescapable burden.

To be fair, the ludicrous expression “reality-based community” is cribbed from a high government official who claimed, as Danner tendentiously supposes, that the administration can manufacture its own reality. But he uses the term apparently without irony and adopts it as a badge of honor: a sign of his special status in being vouchsafed, along with “reality-based” English majors everywhere, the ability to see scandals that are invisible to the rest of us.

A scandal that only smart people can see! What could more perfectly sum up the thinking of the American left of the past few years. I have noticed in this space before how widespread is the assumption among President Bush’s detractors of their own superior intelligence and the meanness of the President’s. These are the kind of people with the bumper stickers reading: “Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing Its Idiot.” Self-evidently, a majority of the American people do not agree with the proposition that all the smart people hate Bush, and yet the left cling to it as to dear life, as if eventually everyone will have to come round to their point of view, to see what they themselves have seen all along and gratefully to acknowledge that they have been the wise and far seeing ones — those, in short, who have borne the corrupting, maddening and inescapable burdens of being so darned smart.

Could anything be less “reality-based” than this?

—James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic.

Comments are closed.



RELATED PUBLICATIONS