If we strain, we can recall a time before the leak probe, when yellowcake was for birthdays, and we knew not how to properly pronounce Niger. (That's Nee-jehr, darlings.) After Friday's five-count indictment of vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, we consider how far we have come, with this look at the lexicon of the Plame Game.
Government scandals allow ordinary people to use important-sounding language. They let us talk like insiders. We make reference to President Bush's famous 16 words from his 2003 State of the Union address -- about how Saddam Hussein supposedly sought uranium from Africa, words that Valerie Plame's husband Joe Wilson disputed before she was outed.
During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, we all pretended to be lawyers and talked a lot about suborning perjury, as if we had any idea what that meant. (Suborn might as well have been a village in France.)
The Plame Game has allowed us to pretend we have high security clearance and to pepper our language with spy chic. Plame, the CIA agent whose name was leaked to the press in 2003, triggering this investigation, is referred to as a covert operative. How mysterious. Talking heads on CNN say Plame operated under nonofficial cover, or without diplomatic protection. We flash back to that Vanity Fair photograph of Plame in a Jaguar wearing a scarf and sunglasses. Retro and beautiful and fast, like a Bond girl.
The liberal bloggers, with their cynical cheer, had spent weeks anticipating Fitzmas, the day when special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald was going to bring indictments. When Fitzmas finally came on Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi decried a Republican culture of corruption, using a phrase Democrats have been rather fond of lately. During the Lewinsky affair, President Bill Clinton often accused his enemies of practicing the politics of personal destruction, and on Friday, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) revived the phrase to level it against the White House, charging that Bush aides tried to discredit Wilson for his criticism of White House foreign policy.
On Fox News in recent weeks, there's been a lot of talk about the criminalization of politics. On television recently, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) used the phrase perjury technicality, minimizing the significance of lying under oath. As soon as we heard it, we flashed back seven years to perjury trap, a term Clinton defenders employed to suggest that his lies were somehow not his fault. Republicans dismissed that phrase at the time; they couldn't stop talking about how Clinton needed to be subject to the rule of law. On Friday, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada brought back that phrase and leveled it against Libby. He said Libby had "put politics ahead" of "the rule of law."
Speaking of Libby, he is sometimes known as Cheney's Cheney, playing the same right-hand-man role to the vice president as the veep does for President Bush. He is also known as Scooter, a nickname no adult should have, least of all one who works for the president. (Scooter was also the nickname for New York Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto. This made it interesting when, during Friday's press conference, Fitzgerald spun a lengthy baseball analogy, with Scooter Libby as the player throwing sand in the umpire's eyes. How very meta.)
Fitzgerald's investigation has played in the shadow of presidential adviser Karl Rove, also known as Bush's Brain. Liberals delight in using the adjective Rovian to suggest a dark, Machiavellian political machine controlling the White House.
Friday, after Libby's indictment, the president gave a statement, reviving a line he has used on other occasions: "I got a job to do," adding that Libby had served the nation "tirelessly." Vice President Cheney also wanted his views known, declaring that Libby had served the nation "tirelessly."
A sideshow of the Plame Game is the fracas over New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who went to jail for months before agreeing to reveal her conversations with Libby. The New York Observer termed the blogosophere's "Talmudic" analysis of the reporter Judiana, as if she were an ancient and fascinating culture unto herself.
When Miller's supporters in the media were rallying behind her, they labeled Fitzgerald an out-of-control prosecutor, recalling what the Democrats said about Ken Starr during l'Affaire Lewinsky. Miller said she had to go to jail so as not to be subjected to a prosecutorial fishing expedition, a phrase also used by Clinton defenders.
But anger at Miller and her reporting methods gave rise to a wave of what Slate magazine has called anti-Judyism. Bloggers seized upon the imperious nickname Miller reportedly gave herself, Miss Run Amok; one even suggested Miller could register MissRunAmok.com and start a blog. The phrase aspens turning, referencing the mysterious last few lines in a letter Libby wrote to Miller before she testified, was the subject of much speculation, with online pundits attempting to work out what secret message, if any, Libby was trying to send. "Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning," the letter said. "They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them."
Was it a reference to the Aspen Institute in Berlin? To some line from Shakespeare? To the fact that Miller once dated a congressman named Les Aspin, who died in 1995? (Whoa.) Or could it just have been a published novelist's literary flourish?
Any modern-day Washington scandal is in some sense derivative of the Big Bang of Washington scandals, Watergate, even if it has nothing to do with it. There's always that suffix. Plamegate. Before the indictment, pundits like Jonathan Turley speculated that Fitzgerald's investigation might eventually make the vice president an unindicted co-conspirator, bringing us back to the original unindicted co-conspirator, Nixon himself.
Yesterday, New York Times columnist David Brooks -- in an attempt to defend the Bush administration -- couldn't help but reference Watergate, albeit to draw a distinction between this scandal and that one: "One thing is clear: There is no cancer on this presidency."
"Cheney's Cheney" JUDITH MILLER
"Miss Run Amok"KARL ROVE