It's one of the ironies of our media culture that the mystique of Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case, grew to mythic size simply by virtue of Fitzgerald keeping his mouth shut until he has something to say.
Manhattan media circles have been so excited by Fitzgerald's silence right up to the eve of the grand jury's term tomorrow that they've forgotten his casting as a First Amendment assassin and turned him into a cross between Philip Marlowe and the Shadow: fearless, honest, independent, laconic and unstoppable. Especially laconic -- and on that point they're demonstrably right. Unlike Kenneth Starr's late, unlamented operation, neither Fitzgerald nor anyone around him leaks.
"Incorruptibility by money is the old story," the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier commented to me this week. "Now it's incorruptibility by media."
That's the new integrity standard: How long can you hold out? How long can you turn down the entreaties of the "Today" show? The seductive power of "deep background?" The lure of A-list dinner invitations?
Fitzgerald has shown no interest in any such media baubles. His silence has been another kind of shock and awe, especially at a moment when the media themselves can't stop blabbing. NBC Universal CEO Bob Wright was quoted this week in the New York Post as saying the NBC network is "desperate" because of its ratings. Last week's hand-wringing e-mail to the New York Times staff from Executive Editor Bill Keller was another noisy session on the couch for the paper of record. Keller "wished" that "we had dealt with the controversy over our coverage of WMD as soon as I became executive editor." He "wished" that "when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed as a witness in the leak investigation I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing." Wishin' and hopin', hopin' and wishin'. By the end of the e-mail, the reader is wishin' that Keller would stop abasing himself before his own staff -- and hopin' he'll fire somebody for a change.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald's powerful silence has made him a blank canvas on which Democrats have projected their fantasies, Republicans their anxieties. We are living in an uneasy moment of moral crisis and institutional disintegration in politics as well as journalism. No administration as tightly wound and paranoiac as the Bush regime could hope to hold together after five years of supremacy and sectarian ruthlessness, governing only for its base.
Fitzgerald has been thrust into the role of the un-George W. Bush -- the gritty cop vs. the rhinestone cowboy. In this corner, the scholarship kid from Brooklyn who worked summers as a doorman and went on to be the stellar student mentoring the less gifted. In the other, the son of privilege who goofed off at school, ducked the draft and always fell back on his dad's influential pals to -- in the memorable phrase of Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, writing this week in the Los Angeles Times about Powell's role in the Bush White House -- clean all the dog poop off the carpet.
It's hard not to see Fitzgerald as the possessor of authentic traditional American virtues. Fitzgerald deals in facts, and lets facts speak for themselves. Bush talks ceaselessly of faith. The prosecutor is all about substance, the president all about surface. In nominating his personal attorney to the most august thinking body in the land, the Supreme Court, the president was caught showing the dismissive view he's always held of intellectual depth and scholarly accomplishment.
Fitzgerald's noir mystique was only strengthened this week by news accounts relating that in contrast to the rapier focus of his mind, Fitzgerald lives in a bachelor apartment with old socks stuffed in the desk drawer and three-month-old lasagna stiffening in the oven. Remember how in the first year of the Bush II presidency there was constant promotion of this administration's crisp corporate values? New-broom indicators like the CEO starting every meeting on time and retiring to bed at 10 p.m. were supposed to signify that personal discipline was a sign of intellectual rigor. But an empty desk can sometimes mean an empty head, one that's comfortable only with spoon-fed executive summaries and filtered "coverage" instead of self-processed information.
"It takes firm leadership to preside over the bureaucracy," Wilkerson wrote in his startling blast against Bush. "But it also takes a willingness to listen to dissenting opinions. It requires leaders who can analyze, synthesize, ponder and decide."
Republicans have been searching for a handle on Fitzgerald. They are trying, seemingly unconsciously, to offload onto him their own bad faith left over from the Clinton impeachment fiasco. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's shameless display on Sunday's "Meet the Press" was the cake taker. Hutchison had the gall to blandly rabbit on about overzealous prosecutors and perjury just being an itsy-bitsy crime. The narrative of Clinton's impeachment is being replayed, only this time without such incidental grotesqueries as a thong-snapping intern and a prissball prosecutor leaking like a fire hose and the recourse to churchy lines like "sex isn't the issue, the issue is lying." It's one thing to say, "If he'll lie about sex, he'll lie about something important." But what if the thing being lied about is already important? For Democrats, the prospect of indictments coming down feels like poetic justice for five years of cynicism and sanctimony.
We thought we wanted transparency from the Bush administration. Now we're getting it, thanks to Fitzgerald (and no thanks to the White House), and it feels ominous. We've already had a preview of what the Bush presidency will look like with its Praetorian Guard down. Karl Rove's absence with kidney stones and his legal distractions in the last six weeks gave us a glimpse of the Bush presidency minus Bush's Brain: the out-to-lunch Katrina response, the botched Miers nomination. At least before they could pretend to have their act together. Now, as Thomas DeFrank's scoop in Monday's New York Daily News reveals, a panicky, irritable president is taking out his frustrations on what's left of his inner circle, which he could never see beyond to begin with.
It's not a reassuring spectacle. With a full 39 months to go, Prince Hal is morphing into Prince Lear. Little wonder we are obsessed with the strength and silence of Patrick Fitzgerald.
In last week's column, I commented on how two editors at the New York Times had been overruled by the managing editor, Gerald Boyd, regarding a Judy Miller report on WMD. The two editors have confirmed their memory of the incident, but Boyd, whom I mistakenly did not speak to in advance, feels the account was misleading. He says: "It was a 30-minute conversation in which we discussed Judy Miller's work and the role of those editors. As reduced in The Post, it has neither the context nor the truth of what we discussed, and I'm amazed that The Post would allow itself to be used by a person or people who have clear agendas in this."
(c) 2005, Tina Brown