Through the Looking Glass, Darkly

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

-- Jabberwocky, 1871.

I'm sure that the vice president may have expressed an opinion, but the fact is, the president understands the -- and he may have recused himself; I honestly don't know.

-- White House press briefing, yesterday.

Lewis Carroll had nothing on the Bush White House of 2007.

The president and his aides have been trending toward the margins of reality for some time now, but with this week's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison term, the administration's statements dissolved into nonsense.

President Bush, fielding questions yesterday after visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, declared that "the jury verdict should stand" -- and then, in answer to the same question, said he was open to vacating the verdict by granting Libby a full pardon.

Logic suffered a more serious challenge when Bush press secretary Tony Snow, in his briefing, made the following points about Libby's case:

· That Bush wasn't "granting a favor to anyone" but that the case got his "special handling."

· That it was not done for "political reasons" even though "it was political."

· That it was handled "in a routine manner," yet it was also "an extraordinary case."

· That "we are not going to make comments" on the case, even though Bush had already issued a 655-word statement commenting on the case.

And if that makes sense to you, beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch.

"You're insulting our intelligence," one of the reporters advised Snow.

"How can you stand there with a straight face?" queried CBS News's Bill Plante.

That Snow was standing there at all was an act of courage. His hair is thinning and his frame is gaunt from his battle with cancer, and he has a port in his chest into which chemotherapy drugs are injected. And Bush has made things increasingly difficult for Snow since the press secretary took the job 15 months ago. The president's popularity has plunged into the 20s, he has lost both houses of Congress, the Iraq war is a debacle, and his vice president has attempted to remove himself from the executive branch. Richard Nixon had been the standard by which presidential failures are measured, but even Nixon was not this low this long.

Snow was late for his briefing yesterday, so one of the cameramen stood on the podium and did an impersonation of the gravelly-voiced spokesman. "We figured the president's ratings were so low at this point that it didn't matter if we commuted his sentence," the impersonator announced.

That may well be true, but the real Snow couldn't come out and say that. Instead, he crossed his ankles behind the lectern and established his opening position: that "the president does not look upon this as granting a favor to anyone."

"Why shouldn't it be thought of as a bestowal of a favor," asked Plante, "when there are dozens of other people who would probably make the same case that their sentences were too heavy and should have been commuted?"

"Well, I'm not sure that there are dozens of others," the spokesman ventured.

Indeed, there aren't dozens. "There are more than 3,000 current petitions for commutation," ABC's Ann Compton informed the spokesman. "Will all 3,000 of those be held to the same standard?"

Snow cut his losses. "I don't know," he demurred.

Ken Herman of Cox News Service tried to get Snow to justify his claim that the Libby commutation was handled by the book. "How could it not be extraordinary to grant something to someone who didn't even ask for it?"

Snow ultimately surrendered to Herman with a shrug.

He got similarly entangled when April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks asked whether the White House planned to apologize for the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity.

First, Snow suggested there would be no apology because of the "considerable controversy about the facts." Next, he asserted, without evidence, that Bush had already apologized. Finally, he made Ryan an offer. "I'll apologize," he said. "Done."

"No, it's not," said an unsatisfied Ryan. "That's flippant."

But flippant was about the best Snow could do, deprived as he was of solid talking points.

CNN's Ed Henry asked why Bush adviser Karl Rove, now known to have leaked Plame's identity, was not being held to Bush's promise in 2004 to fire anybody involved in the leak.

"We are not going to make comments in detail until the legal process is over," Snow parried -- only to be reminded by several reporters of Bush's two-page statement on the case from Monday, and the prosecutor's view that the case is done.

Snow needed a new line. Rove "was not, in fact, indicted on anything," he offered.

"You've changed the standard," Henry pointed out.

Snow retreated. "When we get final clarity on this through the judicial system, I'll answer the question."

The borogoves were all mimsy. "Have we exhausted this?" Snow inquired.

"Yes," Cox News's Herman answered, "we're pretty exhausted."

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