By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005 8:04 AM
During the year and a half that I covered George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, I must have heard his stump speech a thousand times. The lines changed little over the months, and the ending almost never changed -- Bush would raise his hand, as if taking an oath, and promise to restore honor and dignity to the White House.
He also vowed to restore civility to the poisonous atmosphere of the nation's capital, declaring at a GOP fundraiser in April 2000 that "it's time to clean up the toxic environment in Washington, D.C."
A few months later, Bush told voters at a campaign event in Pittsburgh that his administration would "ask not only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves."
The latter comment in particular was a not-so-subtle slap at the legalistic parsing of words of both President Clinton, who parried with prosecutors over the meaning of the word "is," and Vice President Al Gore, who twisted himself into a pretzel with legalisms about raising money at a Buddhist temple during the 1996 presidential campaign.
Bush's speech resonated with many voters, and the themes of honesty and integrity helped propel him to the White House in one of the closest elections in decades.
Today, the president's White House and party are mired in scandal, and Washington waits breathlessly to see whether special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to the reporters, will indict any prominent West Wing staff members.
Political strategist Karl Rove, aka "Bush's Brain," and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, are believed to be possible targets in the investigation. An indictment of either man would be a serious blow to the administration, but what many observers are watching is how President Bush will respond.
After all, back in June 2004 the president said he'd fire anyone involved in the leak of Plame's name. But Bush seemed to lower the standard this summer -- when it became clear that Rove and Libby did in fact have conversations with reporters about Plame -- saying only that if someone "committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."
Given the opportunity on Monday to reassure the public that he meant all of those things he said back in 2000 during the campaign and specifically what he said in June 2004 about the Plame scandal, the president punted.
"There's a serious investigation," Bush said when asked by reporters during a White House photo-op with the Bulgarian prime minister. "I'm not going to prejudge the outcome of the investigation."
But Bush wasn't being asked by the press to "prejudge" the outcome. He was, essentially, being asked to define his standard of propriety. Does someone have to be indicted and convicted of a specific crime in the Plame case to deserve dismissal from Bush's staff? Or does a person merely have to have engaged in questionable, or possibly unethical, behavior?
The investigation into the Plame leak raises plenty of questions that the president may eventually be forced to answer. Among the biggest is what exactly have Rove and Libby told Bush about their roles in the leak?
Murray Waas raised just this question in a National Journal story earlier this month, writing:
"White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove personally assured President Bush in the early fall of 2003 that he had not disclosed to anyone in the press that Valerie Plame, the wife of an administration critic, was a CIA employee, according to legal sources with firsthand knowledge of the accounts that both Rove and Bush independently provided to federal prosecutors.
"During the same conversation in the White House two years ago -- occurring just days after the Justice Department launched a criminal probe into the unmasking of Plame as a covert agency operative -- Rove also assured the president that he had not leaked any information to the media in an effort to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson. Rove also did not tell the president about his July 2003 a phone call with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, a conversation that touched on the issue of Wilson and Plame."
If reports such as those are true, Rove clearly misled the president about his role. And to make matters worse, the White House wittingly or unwittingly played along, in the form of White House spokesman Scott McClellan's denials two years ago that anyone in the administration had anything to do with the Plame leak.
There was a time when Bush's strength was the public's belief in his character and leadership. A CBS News poll earlier this month found that only 45 percent of people believe Bush has "strong qualities of leadership" (compared with 52 percent who don't).
At this point, we don't know if Rove or Libby or anyone else at the White House committed a crime. But given the president's past insistence that his administration would restore honor and dignity to our government, it's fair to ask how hard will Bush work to get to the truth? Will he confront Rove and Libby? Will he ask Vice President Cheney if he had any knowledge of what his top aide was doing or whether he played any role at all in the leak?
Bush's handling of the Plame issue could be a defining issue for him, as he seeks to get his presidency back on track.
If Rove, Libby or anyone else is indicted, the president should at minimum suspend that person without pay pending the outcome of the case. But even if no one is indicted, Bush should fulfill his promise to restore honor and integrity to the White House by assuring the public that strict legality is not the only standard he seeks to uphold.
Bush will have to resist his penchant for secrecy and loyalty and launch an aggressive internal investigation, pledging complete transparency -- with a full public accounting released at the end of that investigation.
Will the president send the message that he is serious about what he promised at that campaign event in Pittsburgh five years ago? Or will he suggest it all depends on what the meaning of "what is right" is?
Comments can be sent to Terry Neal at email@example.com.