Rove Isn't the Real Outrage

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, July 14, 2005

If I were a nicer person, I would have some sympathy for Karl Rove. After all, in a town where many of the people, if they're honest about their job titles, would put down "character assassin," Rove merely tried to impugn the bona fides of a Bush administration critic, the former diplomat Joseph Wilson IV. This is what Rove is supposed to do and what he has done for so long. It was only last month, after all, that Rove impugned the sanity and patriotism of all liberals by saying that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 produced in them the desire to "offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." This was to political rhetoric what the spitball is to pitching.

So I am not predisposed to feel Rove's pain, assuming he has any feeling at all. But I do have to concede that he probably did not set out to expose a CIA operative, the by-now overexposed Valerie Wilson (nee Plame), a specialist in weapons of mass destruction. It was Plame, administration sources told columnist Robert D. Novak and others, who chose her husband to go to Africa to see if Saddam Hussein's Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Niger. He went and later said that he found nothing, but George W. Bush said otherwise in his 2003 State of the Union address. It was supposed to be additional evidence that Iraq had, in the memorable word uttered by Vice President Cheney, "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons program. That, of course, is the real smoking gun in this matter -- the crime, if there is one at all, in what should now be called Karlgate. (It encompasses so much -- the outing of Plame, the jailing of reporter Judith Miller, the moral collapse of the press, the preening of Wilson -- that it sorely needs a moniker.) The inspired exaggeration of the case against Iraq, the hype about weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda's links to Hussein, makes everything else pale in comparison. It was to protect those lies, those exaggerations, that incredible train wreck of incompetence, ideologically induced optimism and, of course, contempt for the quaint working of the democratic process, that everything else stems from. Wilson was both armed and dangerous. He claimed the truth.

The truth about that truth was contained in a Post story about the leaks. It quoted "a senior administration official" who said that the outing of Plame was "meant purely and simply for revenge." It also said that two -- not one -- "top White House officials" had called "at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife." This response might be reprehensible, but it was routine for the town and, particularly, the vindictive Bush White House. What it was not, though, was a crime. The law prohibiting the outing of a CIA agent is so restrictive that it has been applied only once and does not seem to fit this case. I find it hard to believe that Rove or anyone at the White House specifically intended to blow the cover of a CIA agent. Rove is a political opportunist, not a traitor.

Washington loves farce the way Vienna loves the waltz. It once extravagantly inflated a sex act into the impeachment of a president, and it has now reduced the momentous debacle of the Iraq war into a question of what Rove or someone else said to a reporter on the phone. Soon, the question will turn on whether Rove or others actually cited Plame by name and whether the president's oath to fire anyone who identified Plame as a CIA operative applies to someone who just mentioned her job title. It will all depend on what "is" is or, to put it another way, whether Bush will concede that he inhaled.

None of this matters -- not really. The persistent criminalization of politics does no one any good. This is a parody of Clausewitz. He said war is the continuation of politics by other means. Now, we have special prosecutors as the continuation of politics by other means. The New York Times called for one and now, as a result, its own reporter is in jail.

Washington is electrified with the abundant energy of buzz from a scandal -- speculation about Rove, about Bush, about Cheney's aide, Scooter Libby. Who leaked? Who may have lied? How did Novak slip the noose? But the real scandal is the ongoing mess in Iraq, the murder just the other day of innocent children (is there any other kind?) and the false notion that, somehow, taking out Hussein would make us all safer. London gives the lie to that.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company