David Greenberg: Let Scooter Libby Go Free

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg is assistant professor of History and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University and the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image and Calvin Coolidge. ]

In October 2005, things looked grim for the Bush White House. The president was reeling from the serial disasters of Hurricane Katrina, the botched Harriet Miers nomination, and escalating chaos in Iraq. Perhaps worst of all, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's inquiry into "Plamegate"--the blowing of CIA agent Valerie Plame's cover--seemed poised to bear fruit. Left-wing bloggers giddily anticipated a "Fitzmas" day when Karl Rove might be "frog-marched out of the White House," as Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, so memorably put it.

As it happened, Fitzgerald soon indicted not Rove but I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, on perjury and related charges. Despite some sadness that Rove eluded the prosecutor, left-liberal precincts continued to brim with kudos for Fitzgerald and with scorn for the targets of his probe and for the big-name journalists--notably columnist Bob Novak and The New York Times' Judith Miller--caught up in its snare.

Now, as the saga nears its end, we can begin to tally its costs and benefits. While the Bush administration remains intact (barely) and Rove is still ensconced in the West Wing, Libby seems likely to face some penalty for failing to come clean about his conversations with reporters--if not a guilty verdict, then the loss of his job and reputation and someday an obituary that will describe him as one of the few pelts that liberals were able to nail to the wall in the otherwise dismal years of the Bush presidency.

There are many emotional satisfactions to be gained from Libby's plight. It's easy to relish the thought of this administration, whose dirty politics went too long unpunished, finally being held accountable. And, given the subtext of the affair--a debate over the casus belli of a now widely reviled war--the invasion's opponents have naturally found vindication in the pursuit first of Rove and now of Libby. Indeed, on a cosmic level, this comeuppance is deserved. It's contemptible for the White House to have unmasked a CIA officer--and the Republicans' decades-long demagoguery on the security issue should now be seen for the hypocrisy and opportunism that it has always been.

But I think my fellow liberals, partaking in some hypocrisy of their own, have failed to grasp the true toll of this inquisition. We're supposed to be champions of the First Amendment and foes of overzealous prosecutors. For most of the postwar era, we were the ones who demanded greater exposure of government secrets, sharper skepticism about blanket claims of "national security," and stronger support for reporters against the assaults of the organized right. In keeping with those convictions, we should have protested this overwrought case from the start. In fact, applauding it actually benefits the Bush administration--and future regimes of its ilk--by further sanctifying secrecy and demonizing the press. ...

comments powered by Disqus