Now Karl Rove has become "fair game."
That was the term that the president's consigliere applied to Valerie Plame, according to Newsweek, in a conversation with MSNBC's Chris Matthews immediately after the publication of Robert D. Novak's column that identified Plame as a CIA operative. And, of course, Plame was fair game: Her identity was a tool to discredit, however obliquely, the report from her husband, Joe Wilson, that the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger was a bunch of hooey.
Rove's lawyer now admits that, in attempting to warn Time's Matt Cooper off the Wilson story, Rove mentioned Wilson's wife, though not by name. Attention is now focused on whether this violated the law that forbids revealing the identity of our undercover intelligence agents. But it's also worth pondering the quintessential Rovishness of his conversation with Cooper, as reported in Newsweek. Bringing up Plame, after all, did nothing to discredit Wilson's central findings. It was a distraction, an ad hominem attack. Wilson had undermined the administration's tenuous case for its war. To Rove, that made Plame fair game.
And becoming Karl Rove's fair game means you're in for a bumpy ride. Rove did not become George W. Bush's indispensable op only because of his strategic smarts. He's also the kind of ethically unconstrained guy Bush has wanted around when the going gets tough -- when the case Bush is making is unconvincing on its own merits, when he needs to divert attention from himself with a stunning attack on somebody else.
That's been the hallmark of Rove's career -- and Bush's. After Bush lost the 2000 New Hampshire primary to John McCain, Rove directed a slanderous campaign in South Carolina that knocked McCain virtually out of the race with a barrage of fabrications about the personal lives of the senator and his family. Once Bush decided to invade Iraq, and particularly after the weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, Rove orchestrated the campaign to depict the war's critics as terrorist sympathizers. Just a few weeks ago Rove told a right-wing audience that "liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." Get in Bush's way and Rove turns you or your loved ones into the scum of the earth.
You can go pretty far with this kind of modus operandi, particularly if the press is complaisant. Sometimes, you can go too far, as Joe McCarthy discovered when he leveled his woozy allegations against the Army. As Karl Rove is discovering, with ever clearer indications that in his zeal to bring down Wilson he went after a CIA agent, too.
And it's not just Rove who's been caught up in the coverup. Looking like no one so much as Ron Ziegler, Nixon's press guy, in the middle of Watergate, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan was one beleaguered boychik on Monday as he sought to duck questions on how to square his previous assurances of Rove's noninvolvement with the new revelations. Twenty-two times, he invoked the ongoing investigation by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald as a reason not to answer questions.
Time was, however, when the investigation posed no such deterrent. On Oct. 1, 2003, McClellan, after noting that "there's an investigation going on," went on to offer the assurance that, "It's simply not true that [Rove] was involved in leaking classified information."
But the most important questions that the Rove case raises aren't for McClellan; they're for Bush himself. In his zeal to get to the bottom of this matter, and to terminate the employment of any administration official involved in the leak, has the president spoken to Rove about this matter since Sunday, whenNewsweek broke the story of the Cooper-Rove conversation?
After all, on Sept. 30, 2003, Bush said, "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take appropriate action." Presumably, by "appropriate action," the president didn't mean promoting the culprit to deputy chief of staff, Rove's title for the past six months.
Or did he? There's no basis to conclude that if Rove was the guy who outed Plame, he told his boss about it. But Rove was, and has always been, Bush's one indispensable aide precisely, though not only, because he would do whatever it took to advance his boss's interests, no matter the consequences to his intended targets or innocent bystanders. Though we can't be certain it was Rove who disclosed Plame's identity, we can be damned sure that if he did, it was all in a day's work on behalf of George W. Bush.