By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005
Friends recall how relieved I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was that his 15 minutes of fame seemed to be behind him, when as Marc Rich's lawyer he was hauled before an aggressive congressional committee investigating how the fugitive financier came to be pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
For a man known to thrive on anonymity, who as Vice President Cheney's top aide would only talk to reporters if his name was not used, and who cautioned White House subordinates not to talk to the media -- no one, least of all Libby, expected an encore.
If only he had known his next 15 minutes would turn out so badly, that he would spiral from the pinnacle of government power to criminal charges.
The senior White House aide was in seclusion over the weekend at his McLean home with his wife and two grade-school-age children trying, as one friend said, "to put one foot in front of the other," after being indicted Friday on five counts of lying, perjury and obstructing justice -- the only person charged in the 22-month CIA leak investigation.
Libby, 55, was braced for the worst, his friends say, but not necessarily prepared, as he pushed through what were likely his darkest days leading up to the indictment.
He was grieving over his mother's death about 10 days ago -- the same day he learned that White House adviser Karl Rove told the grand jury that Libby may have been the first to inform him of the identity of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame. A few days later, Libby's relationship with New York Times reporter Judith Miller -- who spent 85 days in jail protecting his identity as a source -- was described enigmatically as an "entanglement" by the paper's executive editor.
And on Friday, the man who friends insist was honored to serve for all the right reasons was forced to resign his $161,000 job as the vice president's chief of staff and as a special assistant to the president -- hobbling out of the White House on crutches because he recently broke his foot.
"He has no sense of entitlement, no sense that he's been victimized. Just an attitude of 'circumstances have to be dealt with,' " said Mary Matalin, a friend and former White House colleague, who spoke to Libby over the weekend. "He knows he has got a job to do, and he will get it done. . . . Whining is not in his lexicon."
Matalin described Libby's friends as "crushed" by the turn of events -- and all of those interviewed expressed bewilderment that a man so meticulous, so discreet, so smart -- could end up in this situation. The investigation was triggered when news outlets reported that Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV -- a very vocal White House critic on the war -- was a CIA operative.
Although Libby was spared an even more serious charge -- purposely unmasking Plame -- reporters testified that Libby did steer them to her.
No one would ruminate on the record about Libby's motives, but there is speculation that perhaps Libby is falling on his sword to protect Cheney, not only his boss, but also a personal friend. The two ride into work together in Cheney's motorcade most mornings. Although Libby testified otherwise under oath, his own notes indicate that it was Cheney who first told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. What is not known is whether Cheney was aware of -- or sanctioned -- Libby's effort to discredit Wilson and his wife.
"I've thought about this all night," said one acquaintance. "One possibility is that Scooter was just pushing back because Wilson was after them -- but it just went too far. And frankly he may have thought the reporters would never testify."
Another, who worked with Libby in the White House and considers him a friend, echoed the position of Libby's lawyer: "Perhaps he really did get balled up in the sequencing of his conversations and didn't remember who first told him about her. Unless you've been there, you can't imagine what those jobs are like. It starts at 6 in the morning and ends 8, 9, 10, 11 at night. Seven days a week the phone is ringing off the hook. . . . Not many people would be able to recall who you talked to first."
Friends say Libby is working on expanding his legal team to include white-collar criminal lawyers to get him through this week's arraignment and a potential trial. But at least two close friends worried that the legal battle facing Libby would wipe him out financially.
He left a high-paying job at a law firm to work in government five years ago, and he had recently talked to friends about returning to private practice to rebuild his finances. His wife, Harriet Grant, was a Democratic staff lawyer on the Senate Judiciary Committee who chose to stay home after their children were born.
"It takes a lot of dough to deal with this, and I would not characterize him as wealthy," said Jackson Hogan, a friend from Andover and Yale. "It wouldn't take too long to empty the family's coffers with legal bills."
Another friend who, like others interviewed, spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, said that Libby had often talked about going back into the private sector to secure his family's future. "He certainly does not have enough money -- not with what he's facing now," the friend said. Some friends are planning to set up a legal defense fund to help Libby.
He found his way into government in the early 1980s through his mentor Paul D. Wolfowitz, now president of the World Bank, whom he met when Wolfowitz was teaching at Yale. An undersecretary of state at the time, Wolfowitz hired him as a speechwriter and later brought Libby to the Defense Department with him. From those early days in government, Libby developed an interest in terrorism, particularly chemical warfare.
He also built a reputation in Washington as a self-effacing public servant, more interested in service than power, more interested in dealing with terrorism than pushing a political agenda. "Despite what you read, Scooter Libby is not an ideologue," said another longtime friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He was very much a pragmatist."
It is for this reason that those who know him are astonished that a quiet guy who writes fiction and is interested in poetry, and who strove to stay under the radar screen, is now viewed as a guy who talked too much to reporters, and who concocted a story to cover up his role in the revealing of Plame.
William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said that he never viewed Libby as anything but discreet and honorable in his dealings with the media. "If I talk to 10 people at the White House, the other nine are more open than Scooter. . . . We got nothing from him."
"I remember he would tell us early on not to take a lot of notes -- and if you do, get rid of them shortly thereafter. And not to talk to the press," said Cesar V. Conda, a former domestic policy aide to Cheney.
"If there was such an award in high school -- most likely not to be indicted -- that would have been him," said Ed Rogers, a veteran of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. "He's a by-the-book guy, sure-footed and careful. He's not someone known to play footsie with reporters."
But journalists he spoke to testified that Libby did just that -- that it was Libby who tipped them off to Plame's identity.
"I know he has a story. Believe me, he'll answer," Matalin said. "People who wish the best for Scooter . . . have to take a step back. It's so completely inconsistent with Scooter's work ethic, his intelligence and his history. There's no context in the indictment . . . it's only one side of the story."