The Big Uneasy
Monday, February 5, 2007
Like an awkward cocktail party where the guests know each other too well and don't always get along, the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has brought the capital's government celebs and media players back together in the close quarters of one Washington courthouse.
Maybe too close.
It's a sometimes genial and sometimes strained reunion -- with hearty backslapping as well as forced smiles and uncomfortable silences, but without the canapes and cocktails to lighten the mood. Against the grim backdrop of whether Vice President Cheney's right-hand man had lied about blowing a CIA officer's cover, witnesses called to the stand, their prominent attorneys and reporters covering the criminal case all try to exchange pleasantries in courthouse hallways while they tend to their intersecting duties.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, during a break in his testimony for the prosecution, makes small talk about his kids with reporters who once tried to pin him down on assertions the administration used faulty intelligence to justify a war.
During a recess, defense attorney Theodore V. Wells Jr. beams as he introduces Libby to Mike Espy, a Clinton administration agriculture secretary he helped out of a different jam.
In this slice of Washington, courtroom spectators, witnesses, lawyers -- even the judge -- have been the subjects, sources or authors of interconnected news stories.
Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times and supervisor of reporter Judith Miller, a prosecution witness, is writing about the case, as are two former colleagues at the paper that ultimately questioned some of her reporting on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. John Dickerson, a former Time magazine reporter, is writing about the testimony of his former colleague, Matthew Cooper.
Finally, a Newsweek reporter is old chums with one of the jurors. "I obviously did a double take when I saw him on the jury," said Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, who is also the co-author of a book about the administration's claims for justifying war with Iraq, the backdrop for the Libby case. "This whole thing reminds me of high school."
Like high school, some people just don't want to be here.
The best illustration may be Cooper, who grabbed a quick lunch last week in the courthouse cafeteria before returning to the witness chair to be questioned about his confidential phone conversation with Libby. The normally chatty scribe and amateur comedian wore a pasted-on smile and moved past the grill and salad bar as if picking his way through a minefield. He silently nodded at his buddies in the Washington press corps, then sidestepped them without chitchat.
His most forthcoming remark? "Oh. Hi."
An intensely private and surprisingly tall David Addington, the legal mastermind behind President Bush's expansive executive powers, slunk through the hall with head down to avoid human interaction. Nearly every reporter in the building would have loved to interview him; alas, he was questioned on the stand about subpoenas he received as Cheney's counsel -- and often mumbled.