Published September 30, 2005
Almost every morning as I am shaving, I hear a radio commercial of the sort that produces in me what I call the Dan Rather effect — that is, the urge to talk back to electronic boxes. The message is on behalf of a jewelers’ establishment called Charleston Alexander in Washington, D.C., and it begins with the following boast: “We hold two titles in this town: first, more diamonds in one place than any one place in Washington and, second, price.” After a certain amount of by no means conclusive elaboration on the ambiguity of the second “title,” the ad continues: “And if there was a third title, for loving diamonds, we’d hold that too.” This absurd hypothetical is what brings out the bag-lady in me. “Why not award it to yourself anyway?” I want to shout. Perhaps I do shout. “It’s no less imaginary than the other two!” “Titles” indeed! What kind of title is it that you make up for yourself? It’s like a boxer who, foiled of a real title, awards himself the titles of Most Talented and Mr. Congeniality.
As usual with those who talk to themselves, doing so is a sign of impotence, if not insanity. The battle is already lost. The self-esteem movement long ago established the absolute right of everyone to claim for himself any number of similarly bogus “titles” or honors — and, of course, the corresponding duty of everyone else to respect them and treat them as if they were real distinctions. I have somewhere on a shelf a cup, or possibly a pencil holder, which was given to me on a birthday long ago by one of my children when they were at a tenderer and more worshipful age than they are now. It is labeled “World’s Greatest Dad.” Now no one would begrudge the little tyke the right to think that I was the world’s greatest dad — assuming he or she really did think so — least of all me, but it’s not as if the souvenir shop that must still be selling the things by the gross is ever going to bring in an umpire to decide who is “really” the World’s Greatest Dad and force the rest of us give our mugs and tote bags back. Happily for me, I get to bask in the title of “World’s Greatest Dad” irrespective of the many paternal derelictions of which I have been guilty because someone, somewhere, if only for a sentimental moment, wanted to believe that it was true.
Politics, like professional sports, isn’t like that. Somebody’s actually got to win whatever titles are going, and that means that somebody else has got to lose them. Politicians presumably know this, but the media, being in the business of full-time reality-manufacture, are a bit slower to understand the difference between self-created realities and, well, the real kind. This is especially so when it comes to scandal. So badly do they want scandals to help them sell newspapers, or more broadcast ads to Charleston Alexander, that they are constantly trying to conjure them up out of the most unpromising materials. With the decline of philosophical or even practical differences between the parties, scandal — or, rather, pseudo-scandal — has become the common political currency of opposition. There seems to me to be a direct correlation between the extent to which the party out of power is clueless about what it would do differently from the party in power and the extent of the latter’s alleged malfeasances. As I wrote in this space just two years ago (“Scandalous scandal-culture,” September, 2003), promiscuous and partisan charges of scandal not only drive out more constructive sorts of political debate, they don’t even work as scandal, which by its very nature has to outrage a more-than-partisan sensibility.
But as I also suggested on that occasion, it does seem remarkable how few of those in public life today seem ever to have heard of the maxim against being a judge in one’s own cause. So long as it is President Bush’s political enemies who are crying scandal, we know that whatever it is they are outraged about now is precisely not a scandal — just because it is his political enemies who are trying to make it one. In the same way, so long as it was only the Republicans who were crying scandal about Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, it could never have been a real scandal. It would have taken a significant number of Clinton’s own supporters to make it one, just as it took a significant number of Republicans to agree that Watergate really was a scandal before Richard Nixon could be forced to resign. The media naturally don’t care whether a scandal is real or bogus, so long as some hypothetically greater number of people than if there were no scandal are willing to tune in to hear the latest about whatever is passing for one. But the media also have their own politics, and this makes them even more willing to listen to the scandal merchants when they are, like the media themselves, left-leaning and strongly anti-Bush. That’s why most of the alleged scandals they come up with are so pathetically unscandal-like that the media themselves can hardly be supposed to believe in them.
One example at the beginning of the summer just past was the so-called “Downing Street Memo” — in which a top British intelligence official wrote in July, 2002, before the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, his impression that President Bush had already decided to go to war and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” For a week or two otherwise serious commentators could be heard saying that this was “the smoking gun” that would finally turn the Iraq War into the scandal they had all along insisted it was on the basis of the missing WMD or the photos out of Abu Ghraib prison. Even if it wasn’t the smoking gun, it was “another important piece in the mosaic of understanding the process by which we went to war in Iraq,” as the Washington editor of Knight Ridder, Clark Hoyt put it. Moreover, the document was widely supposed to be a a scandal twofer. Not only did it reveal wrongdoing in the Bush administration but the fact that it was first published in the London Sunday Times on May 1st but took several weeks to gain traction in the US also seemed to confirm another favorite bogus scandal, namely that of the allegedly “right-wing media.” Those of us who complain about the left-wing media, I hope, at least have the good sense to protest not that media bias is a scandal but that it is not a scandal.
To me, the Downing Street memo seemed a ludicrously inadequate peg to hang a scandal on. 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 is hardly dispositive as regards any wrong-doing, even if he had made a less ambiguous claim that there was any. It was in any case obvious to anyone with eyes to see in the summer of 2002 that President Bush was planning to go to war in Iraq — though it seems only courteous to suppose that he would have been glad of a reason to think, sometime in the course of the next eight months, that that step had ceased to be necessary. As things stood at the time, however, you would have had to be extraordinarily naïve to think that people in the White House were not preparing the case for war. Or, as a hostile observer might have put it, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” That’s what is always done with intelligence and facts when a democratic leader has to explain a policy to the people who elected him. Statecraft is not science but advocacy, and to find evidence of bad faith in the administration’s effort to make the best case for war it could is like finding a defense attorney guilty of bad faith for not making the prosecution’s arguments as well as his own.
At any rate, the majority of Americans who were not fuming with partisan hatreds must have thought something of the sort, for the Downing Street memo quietly expired as an issue within a week or two. But no sooner had it exhausted the media’s never very elastic attention span than another smoking gun materialized, ready for the same set of Inspector Clouseaux who had been turned loose on the Downing Street memo to make a similarly unpersuasive set of forensic deductions. This was the publication by Newsweek of an internal memo from Time supposedly revealing that President Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, had been the source (or at least a source) for the story in 2003 by Time’s reporter Matthew Cooper that had identified the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA agent. As this woman, also known as Valerie Plame, had once been an undercover agent — though no one was quite sure how long ago — it appeared that Rove, in having identified her as being connected with the CIA, might conceivably have been guilty of a criminal act, though he had neither mentioned her name or, apparently, known of any covert status she might once have had. But even the possibility of criminal behavior by an administration official — and what an official! — was enough. Immediately there arose a chorus from a thousand media throats chanting “Watergate!”
At least this time, the media people were as excited by the scandal from the start as the left-wing partisans who were trying to sell it to them. Perhaps they felt ashamed by the charge of right-wingery in not giving more currency to the Downing Street memo and were now determined to make up for it. But more than their politics came into play here, for Rove had specifically denied, through the President’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, that he had done what the memo seemed to reveal he had done. Endangering the life of an American intelligence agent may be a crime in the eyes of the law, but it is as nothing, in the eyes of the media, compared with the atrocity of lying to the media. Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that what he had at first thought the “rank hyperbole” in the title of John Dean’s book, Worse than Watergate when it came out last year had been born out with the jailing of Judith Miller from his own paper and the admission by the President’s adviser that he had spoken to a reporter about Ambassador Wilson’s wife. “No reporter went to jail during Watergate,” Rich wrote. “No news organization buckled like Time. No one instigated a war on phony premises. This is worse than Watergate.”
Well sure, Frank, except that you don’t get to decide this. Like Charleston Alexander, Mr Rich is awarding to his own and very partisan sense of the political proprieties a privileged position that in fact can only come from someone else, and in particular someone on the other side of the partisan divide — preferably several people. That’s what makes a real scandal, not the degree of fury that something inspires in those who were already thoroughly persuaded of the allegedly scandalous person’s iniquities — which in Mr Rove’s case included having helped the hated Bush twice win election to the highest office in the land. Even if Frank Rich were a disinterested party and not someone who has been writing anti-Bush columns since long before Karl Rove — or anybody else — ever heard of Joe Wilson or Valerie Plame, the Rove scandal would be — judging on the basis of what we all knew at the time Rich wrote his column — at least as dubious as the Downing Street memo. Not only dubious but absurd. For what could be more ridiculous than the spectacle of the media so full of wrath and warming to the task of blackguarding Karl Rove right and left for speaking to, um, the media? Damn you, sir, for telling us things that we then felt obliged to publish! Have you no shame?
At least one commentator whose sympathies are generally with the left also noticed another difference from Watergate. Michael Kinsley of the Los Angeles Times pointed out that the heroic refusal of Judith Miller and the New York Times to reveal their sources, even for a story that was never written, was undertaken not to protect some vulnerable whistle-blower from the retribution of a wrong-doer he had exposed but to protect the wrong-doer himself — assuming that any wrong had been done. If there was to be a scandal, it arose solely out of the leak itself. For The Times to protect the leaker was then to suppress the scandal and to hide the truth whose exposure was the excuse for claiming the privilege of confidentiality in the first place. Moreover, Mr Rove and the other probable source for the story, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, both waived any claims to protection under the original confidentiality agreement with either Mr Cooper or Miss Miller. Both reporters originally claimed to believe such waivers “coerced,” though there appeared to the naked eye to be no reasons for thinking so. Mr Cooper eventually accepted them anyway rather than go to jail. Miss Miller was — and still is at the time of writing — a harder case.
But if it was dubious, first, that Miss Plame had any secret or undercover status left to be revealed and, second, that Rove had revealed it, there were a couple of other details of the story that might have seemed to offer much more promising lines of inquiry. One was that Cooper’s original article in Time did not take Rove’s line about the information he was imparting — which was the reason for the leak. It did not, that is, regard as newsworthy the fact that the wife of one of the administration’s most vocal critics was in the CIA. To Rove that had seemed the salient detail, but Cooper took the line that the media as a whole have been vigorously pursuing ever since, namely that the administration was trying to “smear” Ambassador Wilson by revealing the CIA connection. Yet how do you “smear” a man by revealing that his wife works for the CIA? Most of us would not consider this to be any kind of a reason to be ashamed or a slur upon the character either of the wife or of the husband. But if you take the peculiar and, I think, fundamentally mistaken view of the world taken by the media, it does look like a smear. Shall I tell you why? For the same reason that they are outraged by the “smears” of Bernard Goldberg and others who tell us that the media are biased — as if we didn’t know. In other words, Rove was hinting that Ambassador Wilson, in reporting from Niger on the possibility or otherwise that Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear materials there, might not have been an entirely disinterested witness, that he might have had an agenda of his own in saying what he said.
And, lo, subsequently it became obvious that such was the case. His denunciation of the administration antedated the “outing” of his wife and was clearly the cause of it. Wilson had accused the Bush people of “misrepresenting the facts” and asked: “What else are they lying about?” But in charging the administration with lying, the Ambassador had wished to claim the same privileged position that the media claim: the privilege of “objectivity” and non-partisanship which alone imparts credibility to cries of scandal. The media could not allow to pass the suggestion that Wilson was anything but politically neutral for the same reason that they could not allow to pass the same suggestion with respect to themselves. I don’t see how it can be other than perfectly obvious to anyone without a vested interest in denying it that (a) the media are biased and do have an agenda of their own in deciding what to report and how to report it and (b) that Ambassador Wilson was a committed opponent of the administration and of its plans to go to war in Iraq before he ever went to Niger. His political bias must have colored both his report from there to the CIA, which apparently found it unpersuasive and never passed it along to the President, and his subsequent insistence that it had been disregarded for political reasons. Again, he has in common with the media the propensity for accusing everyone else of having political motives while insisting that his own are above reproach.
Well, you can see why the media’s sense of outrage about the whole affair is tinged with the hint of lèse-majesté. How dare anyone, let alone Karl Rove, question our motives — or Ambassador Wilson’s? But as usual this excess of self-righteousness means that they miss the real story, which is that the supposedly non-partisan CIA has come to harbor at least a few politically engaged agents and possibly a whole bureaucracy with an agenda of its own — an agenda which includes an effort to discredit their political masters. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times in the wake of the last presidential election, “over the past several months, as much of official Washington looked on wide-eyed and agog, many in the C.I.A. bureaucracy have waged an unabashed effort to undermine the current administration.”
At the height of the [election] campaign, C.I.A. officials, who are supposed to serve the president and stay out of politics and policy, served up leak after leak to discredit the president’s Iraq policy. There were leaks of prewar intelligence estimates, leaks of interagency memos. In mid-September, somebody leaked a C.I.A. report predicting a gloomy or apocalyptic future for the region. Later that month, a senior C.I.A. official, Paul Pillar, reportedly made comments saying he had long felt the decision to go to war would heighten anti-American animosity in the Arab world. . . As the presidential race heated up, the C.I.A. permitted an analyst — who, we now know, is Michael Scheuer — to publish anonymously a book called Imperial Hubris, which criticized the Iraq war. Here was an official on the president’s payroll publicly campaigning against his boss. As Scheuer told The Washington Post this week, “As long as the book was being used to bash the president, they [the C.I.A. honchos] gave me carte blanche to talk to the media.”
If anything sounds to me like a scandal, that does. But then, that’s not for me to say, is it? At any rate, like media bias, it will never become one until the partisan media become as outraged by Michael Scheuer’s leaks as they are by Karl Rove’s.