Putrid smell of politics

Tim Russert

"Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason." —Anonymous

The furor over Karl Rove's role in leaking the identity of an undercover CIA officer has finally brought the American press to life, and it serves as a terrific illustration of why politicians are held in such low regard by the American public.

In 2003, Robert Novak published a column intended to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson who had written an op-ed piece in the New York Times refuting one of the principal claims of the Bush rationale for Iraq war, namely that "Saddam Hussein tried to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa" and was, therefore, a potential nuclear threat:

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.  Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger. ... The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.

The White House vehemently denied that Karl Rove and other politicos at the White House had anything to do with the leak, but it now turns out that Rove was, in fact, the source for Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, one of two reporters subpoenaed by the special prosecutor investigating the leak. The other, Judith Miller, is currently in jail for refusing to testify.

Pat Oliphant
Pat Oliphant (Click image to enlarge)

This presents a huge political problem for Bush. The White House has responded by stonewalling, a technique made famous by Richard Nixon during the Watergate affair. But allies and supporters have mounted a vigorous defense, led by Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mehlman and John Podesta, former chief of staff during the Clinton administration, appeared on today's Meet the Press.

Mehlman disgusts me so much that I usually want to hurl objects at the television set in lieu of being able to hurt him personally. Mehlman is a former deputy to Karl Rove and — quelle surprise! — uses the same tactics as his former boss: namely, attack and change the subject. Consider two exchanges near the end of the segment with Mehlman and Podesta.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me refer you both to a Washington Post editorial on Friday. "A federal prosecutor is conducting a criminal probe that has, among other things, unearthed an e-mail from Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper revealing that Mr. Rove told him about Ms. Plame's role in her husband's trip.  This gives the lie to White House denials that Mr. Rove was involved in the leak.  Mr. Rove and White House spokesman Scott McClellan can fairly be accused, at the very least, of responding to questions about the affair with the sort of misleading legalisms and evasions that Republicans once rightly condemned President Bill Clinton for employing."  Do you agree?

Ken Mehlman

MR. MEHLMAN:  Tim, I disagree with that, and I also note that that same article pointed out that what Karl Rove said to Matt Cooper was appropriate, and the reason was it was right to raise questions about Joe Wilson.  You mentioned that a minute ago, and Mr. Podesta responded by kind of blowing off the point you made.  But let's remember this.  Joe Wilson misled the public about who sent him to Niger.  Second, he misled the public about what he found.  He misled the public about who revealed his materials and what he saw when he was over there.  He misled the public about the documents that he didn't review, which he said he did review.  He explained all of these mistakes by saying, "I sometimes take a little literary flair."  He then appeared in a big photo spread in Vanity Fair magazine.  And so these are a lot of examples of a source that really turned out to be misleading and inaccurate on issue after issue after issue.  He even said he's wondering who's going to play him in the movie.  Maybe he's somehow confused his screenplay with reality.

MR. RUSSERT:  When you were at the Clinton White House, you all remember President Clinton's testimony under oath, where he and his lawyer, Mr. Bennett, saying there is no sex of any kind, and President Clinton saying, "Well, it depends what 'is' is."  Are those the kind of legal evasions that you're now accusing the Bush White House of?

John Podesta

MR. PODESTA:  Well, I think that, you know, the president paid a tremendous price.  But I think that at the end of the day, this isn't about President Clinton.  This is about the Bush White House, this is about the war in Iraq, this is about the fact that whether it's Dick Clarke or General Shinseki or Max Cleland or Joe Wilson, the modus operandi is if you criticize this White House, if you suggest there's another point of view, you're attacked, you're smeared, and that's what happened.  It got them in trouble two years ago. It's not going to get them out of trouble today.  They ought to cut it out.

MR. RUSSERT:  But is there a lesson from what happened in the Clinton White House that you think should be applied to the Bush White House?

MR. PODESTA:  Well, I think the lesson is that you ought to be straightforward with the American public.

MR. RUSSERT:  And avoid the legalisms?


Both Podesta and Mehlman were put on the spot by the question directed to them. They responded quite differently.

Mehlman immediately asserts that the opposite is true and changes the subject from the point of the quote in Russert's question to another assertion that the article in question exonerates Karl Rove (when in fact it shows Rove has been caught in a bald-faced lie). Mehlman then goes on to an extended attack on Joseph Wilson, who wasn't even mentioned in the question.

Podesta tacitly acknowledges Russert's point when he says that Clinton "paid a tremendous price." But he refuses to be sucked into a defense of Bill Clinton and refocuses on the issue that is really at the heart of the whole leak imbroglio, namely Did the US go to war with Iraq for the right reasons or were we sold a bill of goods? When Russert follows up with two questions, Podesta answers first with a single sentence and then with a single word, both totally on topic.

I've watched Mehlman on any number of interview and talk shows, and he always does the same thing: no matter what the question, he spews forth a constant stream of canned talking points, most of which have nothing to do with the question asked. He usually includes an attack — on someone, anyone! — and indignantly disavows partisan politics, as if he, himself, is pure as the driven snow and would never stoop to such a thing himself (which, of course, is exactly what he is doing the whole while). Mehlman clearly expects that if he talks long enough and throws enough words into the air, listeners will forget what the question was and something he says will stick. In other words, it's first-class bullshit.

The fact that so much of the story is focusing on Karl Rove is actually an advantage to the Bush White House. The more people focus on Rove's fate, the less likely they are to remember that this all began because of questions about the reasons for going to war and whether the intelligence was 'fixed'. And the more people focus on who said what to whom the less likely they are to realize that the London bombings show how specious is the Bush claim that by fighting terrorists in Iraq we don't have to fight them here.

The emperor is not wearing any clothes, folks, and it is not a pretty picture.