washingtonpost.com
Judy, Scooter, Karl, Harriet, Saddam & Co.

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 20, 2005 11:12 AM

Some brief observations from the road:

-- Aren't you tired of one court nominee after another dancing around the question of abortion? Harriet Miers has never thought about it, never discussed it with Bush, blah blah blah.

So now we learn that she favored a constitutional ban on abortion back in 1989. So you think she would have disclosed that had there not been a piece of paper from her campaign for the Dallas City Council? I know, I know: Judges put their personal feelings aside, consider each case individually, put great weight on precedent and so on.

But let's be real: Republican conservatives are happy about this and liberal Democrats are upset. If enough Repubs overcome their concerns about Miers's thin constitutional resume, this has the potential to flip the debate back along the usual partisan lines -- though Democrats will still have to ponder whether defeating her would bring them a more aggressive and equally anti-abortion nominee.

-- The start of the Saddam Hussein trial -- even if it did last only one day -- will provide a subtle boost to the Bush administration by reminding people that for all that's gone wrong in Iraq, we did get rid of a monster.

-- Didn't we go awfully quickly from this WashPost story saying Fitzgerald has "zeroed in on the role of Vice President Cheney's office" -- which added that the prosecutor has "focused more on the role of Cheney's top aides" -- to loudmouths on TV speculating about a Cheney indictment?

-- The debate about the New York Times seems to have moved a bit from Judy Miller to the roles played by Arthur Sulzberger and Bill Keller. Why didn't they rein her in earlier, how could Keller have taken her off the WMD beat only to watch her drift back to national security, and so on. Fair enough. And many Times staffers believe they erred by curtailing the coverage as Miller became a central player in the investigation (how do you get beat on your own reporter getting sprung from jail?). And maybe they should have insisted that Miller make a reasonable deal with Fitzgerald, as Russert, Cooper, Kessler and Pincus did. But as she went off to jail, sacrificing for what she believed to be an important principle, did they have any choice but to back her strongly? Isn't that what any journalist would expect the bosses to do? Maybe, in retrospect, Jon Landman or some other top Times editor who wasn't involved in the Judy legal strategy should have been put in charge of the coverage.

-- Finally, Jon Corzine, who's in more of a dogfight in the New Jersey guv race than anyone expected, has been running one ad here over and over again. It features Bill Clinton, praising him to the skies. That's an interesting bellwether, considering that in 2000, Clinton was considered a possible liability and the Gore folks would send him only to a few carefully chosen states. In Democratic eyes, he now must be fully rehabilitated, or at least in New Jersey. (As for the New York mayor's race, I've seen about a thousand ads for Billionaire Bloomberg and not a single one for Freddy Ferrer. Does he have some kind of secret radio strategy?).

News on the Plame front, first broken by the AP: Rove testified that Libby told him about Valerie and they discussed their conversations with reporters on the subject, according to an unnamed source who bears a striking resemblance to Rove's lawyer (here's the WashPost account). {dagger}And CNN sees a conflict with Russert's testimony:

"Libby's testimony stated that Rove had told him about his contact with Novak and that Libby had told Rove about information he had gotten about Wilson's wife from NBC's Tim Russert, according to a person familiar with the information shown to Rove.

"Prosecutors, however, have a different account from Russert. The network has said Russert told authorities he did not know about Wilson's wife's identity until it was published and therefore could not have told Libby about it."

{dagger}Judith Miller could be called to testify in another case. Some reporters have all the luck.

Miller, by the way, says she does plan to return to the paper after her leave. The New York Observer has more:

"'I think I understand why people are upset,' she told The Observer on Tuesday, Oct. 18. 'They're upset about many things. They're upset about the war in Iraq, about the Bush administration; they want to know whether they were misled into this war. They're upset about W.M.D. coverage. But let's try and separate out this case from these questions. I'm doing the best I can do to focus on the issue that is paramount here, and that is protecting journalists.'"

She's right about the first part--the passion, especially on the left, is driven by the war.

Mickey Kaus

agreeing only in part with my thesis that the Miller slugfest is a proxy war over Iraq, offers some other provocative scenarios:

"a) Treason: Miller wasn't just perceived as in cahoots with neocons in foisting the war off onto the public. She was doing it from within the New York Times, which the Left correctly perceives as one of 'its' institutions. As a traitor within the liberal camp, she has to be expelled and punished, in a way she wouldn't be punished if she'd been an equally mistaken and influential reporter for National Review. The host body rejects her.

"b) Regicide and Meritocracy: There's a sense, as Arianna Huffington noted during the summer, that this is 'the straw that could break the Gray Lady's back.' In particular, publisher Arthur 'Pinch' Sulzberger is perceived by many (including me) as a near-mediocrity who inherited his position and is not up to the job -- and is also a friend and defender of Miller's.

"The underlying suggestion is that maybe the current crisis will finally be his downfall -- even if many journalists aren't eager to say this out loud, just in case it isn't.

"c) Revenge I: Resentment of the NYT because it's been the arrogant top dog ( a resentment I sampled when I foolishly opened the floodgates to reporters who claimed the Times ripped off their stories).

"d) Revenge II: Miller throws her weight around, pulls rank, etc.

"e) Democracy: The self-righteous, simplistic, condescending posturing of the Times -- under Sulzberger (see (b)) -- in claiming special constitutional privileges for itself in the name of 'the public's right to know' -- without even addressing the issue of what, in 2005, makes the Times so superior to the bloggers who now are much of the public."

In American Prospect, Todd Gitlin Gitlin assigns the blame:

"Judith Miller and her chain of bosses up to and including the publisher were derelict. She has never explained her misleading WMD coverage. 'WMD -- I got it totally wrong,' she said to Don Van Natta, Jr., Adam Liptak, and Clifford J. Levy. 'The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them -- we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.' But not everyone's sources were wrong, and not every journalist was wrong. She owes her readers, and her employers, an explanation for her very grand, very consequential wrongness.

"And Bill Keller, who let her 'kind of drift on her own' back into covering the weapons issues she'd been barred from, all the way over to the smearing of Joseph Wilson -- what about him? And Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who approved of the editorials declaring that the principle at stake in the Fitzgerald investigation was simple -- what about him? Journalists cannot go on claiming absolute exemption from criminal investigations as if that principle, all by itself, were holy writ."

Miller draws a defense--or at least a call to stop piling on--from the WashPost editorial page :

"It's astonishing to see many in the journalism establishment, and in the media trade press, turn on Ms. Miller not just for questions surrounding the waiver but also for refusing now to identify all of her sources, turn over all of her notes and otherwise lay bare her reporting. Normally these commentators are among the first to defend journalists who seek to protect a confidential source. Reporters often rely on unnamed sources to expose corruption and incompetence in government. Neither Ms. Miller nor the other reporters in this case (including two at The Post) faced an easy choice in deciding the circumstances under which they could testify, but their struggle with the dilemma, and her decision to go to jail, merit some sympathy and respect.

"That Ms. Miller is receiving so little stems in part from disapproval over her too-credulous reporting leading up to the Iraq war and in part, in some cases, from animus toward the Bush administration. But the next time a journalist faces off with a prosecutor, these same commentators may regret the certainty with which they condemned Ms. Miller."

Slate Editor Jake Weisberg has an important piece telling his fellow liberals to stop stockpiling champagne over the Fitzgerald probe:

"Hold the schadenfreude, blue-staters. Rooting for Rove's indictment in this case isn't just unseemly, it's unthinking and ultimately self-destructive. Anyone who cares about civil liberties, freedom of information, or even just fair play should have been skeptical about Fitzgerald's investigation from the start. Claiming a few conservative scalps might be satisfying, but they'll come at a cost to principles liberals hold dear: the press's right to find out, the government's ability to disclose, and the public's right to know . . .

"No one disputes that Bush officials negligently and stupidly revealed Valerie Plame's undercover status. But after two years of digging, no evidence has emerged that anyone who worked for Bush and talked to reporters about Plame -- namely Rove or Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff -- knew she was undercover. And as nasty as they might be, it's not really thinkable that they would have known. You need a pretty low opinion of people in the White House to imagine they would knowingly foster the possible assassination of CIA assets in other countries for the sake of retaliation against someone who wrote an op-ed they didn't like in the New York Times.

"But in the hands of a relentless and ambitious prosecutor like Fitzgerald, the absence of evidence that you've broken a law just becomes an invitation to develop a case based on other possible crimes, especially those committed in the course of defending yourself, like obstruction of justice and making false statements. Call witnesses back enough times and you can usually come up with something. Special prosecutors never give up, because saying no crime was committed, after investing years and tens of millions of public dollars, counts as abject failure."

The usually reliable Tom DeFrank reports in the Daily News:

"An angry President Bush rebuked chief political guru Karl Rove two years ago for his role in the Valerie Plame affair, sources told the Daily News. 'He made his displeasure known to Karl,' a presidential counselor told The News. 'He made his life miserable about this.'"

But wouldn't that--what's the phrase I'm looking for?--flatly contradict Bush's vow to fire any leakers? And is DeFrank prepared to go to jail rather than reveal who the "presidential counselor" is?

Andrew Sullivan seems excited by rumors that Cheney could be vulnerable:

"The odds may be narrowing on Cheney. If that pans out, we could be about to hit Plamegate pay-dirt; and the Bush administration could be headed into a political Katrina. But this is still just Capitol Hill buzz; and my sourcing is still light. A blog is not a newspaper and what I've just detailed wouldn't (and shouldn't) get into a newspaper. But, hey, speculation is part of what a blog is for; and I don't see why I should withhold what folks in DC are buzzing about from readers. We still don't know a lot. And these rumors may be shot down. But the issue may well be the now long-reported Airforce One trip where Plame's covert status was allegedly discussed. With whom did Powell allegedly share the email? Who took the information and used it? We may soon find out."

Now I can't scold him, since he's admitted this isn't publishable by real news standards.

How is the MSM handling the discovery of Miers's 16-year-old stance against abortion:

Los Angeles Times : "News of Miers' answers to the Texans United for Life questionnaire generated a positive response from conservatives, and seemed to erode support among those who had viewed her as being more moderate."

New York Times : "The disclosure alarmed abortion rights supporters but failed to assuage the concerns of some conservative Republicans."

Um, didn't John Roberts's supporters tell us last month it would be improper to actually delve into the nominee's views before rubber-stamping him to head the Supreme Court? Now aren't some conservatives saying they practically want a guarantee that Miers would oppose Roe before swallowing their misgivings over her less-than-stellar record? In other words, aren't both sides employing a litmus test while denying anything of the sort?

In the Weekly Standard, Duncan Currie examines the wait-for-the-hearings strategy for Miers:

"A charitable interpretation might be paraphrased as follows: Just be patient -- when Miers goes before committee, she'll dazzle everyone with her punctilious mastery of constitutional law. A not-so-charitable interpretation might go like this: As long as she votes our way on the Court, what more do you want? So let's quit all this elitist nonsense about 'qualifications' and 'cronyism' and give her a chance.

"If the pro-Miers forces mean to imply the former, then yes, they are correct to say the president deserves at least a modicum of deference in his selection. But if they mean the latter -- that how Miers will vote is all that matters, and her credentials be damned -- then conservatives should be aghast."

Forget abortion; Maureen Dowd can't believe that Harriet got bounced from the D.C. bar for forgetting to pay her dues:

"Ms. Miers, then the White House counsel, remedied the situation after she got the letter. But weren't the Bush spinners making a case for her by reporting that she was really great at managing the paper flow when she was the president's staff secretary?

"Now we discover that she could be such a scatterbrain about paperwork that a little tiny thing like being able to legally practice law slipped her mind while she was serving as the lawyer for the leader of the free world?"

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive