Friday, October 28, 2005

The first shoe drops

With stunning speed after a seemingly endless 22-month investigation, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald today finally put someone’s ass in his briefcase in connection with the CIA leak inquiry [see “Waiting for Fitzgerald”]. The first shoe has dropped and it landed squarely on Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, who was indicted by a federal grand jury, on Fitzgerald's recommendation, on five counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice.

Libby, lately glimpsed coming in and out of the White House on crutches, resigned his position in the White House, surrendering his access pass and, presumably, all the perks and privileges connected to his high-profile, maximum security clearance position in the Bush administration. The man known as “Dick Cheney’s Dick Cheney,” the first White House staffer indicted while in office in 130 years, is looking down the barrel of a possible maximum sentence of 30 years in the slammer and $1.25 million in fines. Scooter was last seen scooting his Yale-educated ass out of the White House, probably for the last time without a visitor’s pass.

President Bush, the gravity of the situation evident on his face, appeared to offer a terse, six- or seven-sentence statement he might as well have phoned in: We’re sorry to see Scooter go; like everyone in America, he’s entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty; we’ve got a job to do on behalf of the American people and we’re going back to work. He turned and practically fled from the microphones and headed for Marine One for his weekend trip to Camp David, where he’s no doubt hunkering down with aides to try and pull a distracting rabbit out of his hat – most likely the name of a new nominee for the Supreme Court, most likely to be released to great fanfare on Monday.

What followed on the television talk shows and news programs was one of the most immediate and orchestrated exercises in damage control this White House has ever undertaken, and there have been plenty. Right-wing apologists of every stripe emerged to defend the administration, some of them with the nerve to say that, paraphrasing now, “things could have been worse; all in all, this is actually a great day for the administration.” The thinking seemed to be that, with Libby out of the way, things could get back to something approaching normal for the Bushies.

MSNBC analyst and former Republican apparatchik Pat Buchnan called the president’s statement on the White House lawn “brilliant and savvy.” It was neither. In Bush’s brief comments there was nothing more or less than an example of boilerplate butt-covering, hardly anything akin to brilliant, not so much savvy as politically instinctive CYA.

Questions remain. At a 66-minute news conference announcing the indictment, Fitzgerald repeatedly made it clear that the investigation continues and that more indictments were possible. Fitzgerald didn’t mention administration architect Karl Rove by name, but Fitzgerald spoke of a shadowy “Official A” who may be the source of the leak, and possibly the linchpin to the outcome of this sordid mess. Could it be Rove? Could it even be Cheney?

There's much to compel that suspicion. Newsweek reporters Howard Fineman and Richard Wolff, in the magazine's newest issue, offer a plausible connecting of the dots: "Fitzgerald will inevitably have to shine a light on the machinery that sold the Iraq war and that sought to discredit critics of it, particularly Joseph Wilson. And that, in turn, could lead to Cheney and to the Cheney-run effort to make Iraq the central battleground in the war on terror."

Thus are second presidential terms frozen in place. It damn near happened to Reagan; it did happen to Nixon and Clinton -- that slow unraveling of noble intentions and grand agendas, made the victim of hubris in high places.

Some people in Washington must surely know this, or at least sense it. There’s a strong probability, for example, that junior White House staffers are working this weekend at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though not so much working as pursuing their own form of damage control: updating their resumes to remove all mention of employment there.

Next week should be entertaining, if not instructive. The wheels of Fitzgerald’s investigation are grinding forward, with no telling where all this will end up. This bit of political theater is revealing the seams and patches of the Bush administration mindset more tellingly than any of the Bushies’ official policy statements. The Libby indictment, along with the Harriet Miers debacle and the long-running agony of the Iraq war, show the Bush White House in the position of reacting to events, rather than directing them. The flight to Camp David will lead, mark our words, to a transparent attempt to regain the high ground of public attention next week.

Regardless of those attempts, the historical parallels between this administration and another presidency are inescapable and have been for some time. A new parallel is lately emerging.

It’s been obvious for some time that Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam; what remains to be seen is whether or not the president and his associates can prevent this current domestic meltdown from becoming George Bush's Watergate.

The betting window is open.

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