By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Joe Wilson was at the Bombay Club, two blocks from the White House, waiting to have lunch shortly after noon yesterday with a friend and former National Security Council staffer, when his BlackBerry rang. It was his wife. She skipped right over "Hello."
"Four out of five. Guilty," Valerie Plame Wilson said evenly.
"There you go," Wilson recalls responding, with the same understatement.
He did not, he says, let out a whoop and dash around the swank Indian restaurant exchanging high-fives. But the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was a vicarious victory for the couple, the close of a chapter in their 3 1/2 -year struggle to hold government officials to account for what they say was a smear campaign against them and a coverup of bogus reasons for taking the nation to war.
And it was the beginning of a busy, blurry day for Joe Wilson, the former acting ambassador to Iraq, whose 2002 report debunking claims that Saddam Hussein sought nuclear materials from Niger started the whole drama.
"I don't take any satisfaction in other people's trials and tribulations," Wilson said. "I would hope that the administration would learn from this that the abuse of the public trust to engage in personal political vendettas is inappropriate."
And yet he was definitely in a good mood. As he told NBC during an afternoon round-robin marathon of interviews in the offices of his lawyers, "I think we will sleep better tonight, knowing the jury has done its job and knowing Mr. Libby is a convicted felon." And his wife? "She wept," Wilson said later.
That BlackBerry call cut short his lunch, and Wilson went home to change into a double-breasted gray suit, raspberry tie and black ankle-high boots. Then he reported to the spare office suite at the corner of 14th and I streets NW that is home to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the legal watchdog group handling the Wilsons' civil suit against Libby, Vice President Cheney, presidential aide Karl Rove and former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.
If this trial has provided evidence of just how expertly the administration could command the press's attention, it also has offered new media ops for this administration archnemesis.
First came the teleconference with print and radio reporters, then three offices in the suite were cleared for TV crews to set up. The space filled with filtered lights, cables snaking under doors, equipment dollies and a rotating cast from various networks.
Wilson drifted between the rooms, his suit coat open, holding a cup of water, giving an interview in one room while crews were setting up in the other two. There was a smile on his face. It was not a gloating smile, but it was a smile of great contentment.
As for who might play him and his wife in the Hollywood movie that's reportedly in the works, he said, "I only ask that Jack Black be cast in a role other than that of Joe Wilson."
With his affect of courtly cheer and his silver hair swept long in back, he looked every bit the cosmopolitan free spirit who at the height of the flap appeared in a Vanity Fair photo spread with his wife, all glammed up. But sitting down to answer the same questions again and again, now professorial in his spectacles and his prim white pocket square, he stuck to a solemn, almost melodramatically constitutional message.
"We really see this as a reaffirmation that this is a nation of laws," he said. "We live in a great democracy. That was demonstrated by this trial and the verdict, that no man is above the law.
"If you take the time to look at the testimony, it makes very clear the extent to which senior officials within this administration embarked on a disinformation campaign, the justification of which was to cover up the lies they said in the first place. And the methodology used was to engage in an unprecedented smear campaign, which would have succeeded had it not been illegal to divulge the name of a covert officer."
But Libby was convicted only of lying, and no one was convicted of that other stuff.
"Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion," came the practiced argument. "That doesn't mean he wasn't a racketeer."
The formerly classified woman, Valerie Plame Wilson, was nowhere to be seen. She was at their home in the Foxhall neighborhood, Wilson said, putting the finishing touches on her book and taking care of their 7-year-old twins. The family plans to move shortly to New Mexico.
Arguments on the Wilsons' civil suit are scheduled for May in U.S. District Court. The couple are seeking unspecified monetary damages from the four officials for violating their constitutional rights by allegedly retaliating against them. Wilson and Melanie Sloan, executive director of the legal group, said they want to hold officials accountable and use the discovery process to expose government actions in the run-up to war.
The couple, as Joe Wilson pointed out, "served our country for a combination of 45 years." He was acting ambassador to Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; his lunch partner yesterday was the one who notified him of the invasion. Wilson was later named ambassador to two small African nations by George H.W. Bush, who had hailed his courage in sheltering and helping to free U.S. citizens in Baghdad before the Gulf War started. He also served as senior director for African affairs in the Clinton White House.
Hearing that President Bush had expressed sympathy for Libby, Wilson called on the president to "express his sorrow to my wife, whose career was destroyed."
He also said, "The president ought to live up to his word and fire Mr. Rove."
One part of Wilson's message evolved over the day, his attitude toward a possible presidential pardon for Libby. In the teleconference he said, "I'm a firm believer in the Constitution, which accords the president the power of pardon."
In later interviews he said, "On reflection," Bush had a conflict of interest, and so "there's no place in a case like this for the use of a presidential pardon."
Last night he was scheduled for three more network appearances, with Keith Olbermann, Larry King and Anderson Cooper.
As the afternoon was winding down, a law-firm staffer said a radio producer had called seeking a morning interview. Not possible.
"I'm supposed to be doing something with Diane Rehm tomorrow," Wilson said.
But for now, he was going back home to take an aspirin.
The conviction of Scooter Libby was giving Joe Wilson a headache.