Bob Dole once observed that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera. But yesterday, the senior senator from the state of loquacity met his match.
The New York Democrat called a news conference in the Capitol, his third in as many days protesting senior Bush White House official Karl Rove's role in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame. But this time he was joined by Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, the man who long ago said Rove should be "frog-marched" out of the executive mansion.
Even Schumer, who has authored four letters to the administration about the Rove matter this week alone, could not keep pace with Wilson. The news conference's final word count: Wilson 1,400, Schumer 1,200.
With shutters clicking and flashes popping, Wilson demanded anew that Rove be fired. "I made my bones confronting Saddam Hussein and securing the release of over 2,000 Americans in hiding in Kuwait," he said before a cluster of microphones beneath a portrait of George Washington. "Karl Rove made his bones doing political dirty tricks. This is not about Joe Wilson."
For better or worse, though, it is about Wilson. Republicans, desperate to change the subject away from Rove's identifying of Plame to a journalist, have issued a barrage of statements and news releases this week trying to refocus the debate on Wilson's past statements and his politics. Schumer, who pioneered the Democratic effort to have the leak investigated, answered the Republicans by standing arm-in-arm with Wilson in the Capitol's Mansfield Room.
And that's fine with Wilson, who, since his wife was identified two years ago Thursday in a Robert Novak column, has published a book on the subject, persuaded his wife to do a photo shoot for Vanity Fair, and become a media darling. Thursday morning he was on NBC's "Today" show, accusing the White House of "a coverup of the web of lies that underpin the justification for going to war in Iraq."
In a sense, events of the past week entitled Wilson and Schumer to their curtain call before the cameras. Wilson, whose wife's career was jolted when the administration compromised her identity, has been proved correct in his accusation that Rove had a role in the affair. And Schumer, for all his recent letters and news conferences, has pursued the matter from the start. But Democrats have questioned, privately, whether they are falling into a Republican trap by allowing attention to shift back to Wilson now that Democrats have Rove on the ropes.
To defend Rove, the Republican National Committee this week has been attacking Wilson with abandon. RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman portrayed Wilson as a dishonest Democratic partisan in a statement issued in both English and Spanish ("Wilson afirmo incorrectamente . . ."). The party distributed a Wall Street Journal editorial saying "Wilson hadn't told the truth." Yesterday came documents from the RNC titled "Joe Wilson's Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements" and "Senator Schumer's Hypocrisy on Joe Wilson."
Schumer, for the most part, fought the Republican effort to shift the focus from Rove to Wilson. "Even a child knows that if a person can't keep a secret, you stop telling them secrets," he said. "It's time for the administration to suspend Karl Rove's security clearance while this investigation continues."
But Schumer, and Wilson, could not entirely resist the Republican bait. "I know that Karl Rove and his allies in the administration are eager to paint Ambassador Wilson as a politically motivated malcontent, but Karl Rove and the RNC accusing Joe Wilson of playing politics is like Homer Simpson telling Lance Armstrong he's out of shape," the senator fumed, with Wilson at his side.
When the questions inevitably turned to the GOP charges about Wilson's credibility and partisanship, Schumer continued, "It's Kafka-esque to turn the tables on this man," the senator said. "He served his country. I believe he was a Republican."
"I wouldn't say that," Wilson interjected, "but I've been known to vote for Republicans."
"Okay, known to vote for Republicans," Schumer corrected. Bush officials, he said, are "compounding the crime, so to speak, because they were political and now they're trying in an 'Alice in Wonderland' way to accuse the ambassador and his wife of being political."
Wilson, who aided the Kerry campaign last year, reasoned this way, "If somebody had outed your wife, would you vote for them?"
Wilson continued to detail his nonpartisan bona fides. Schumer, hands in pocket, nodded absently. A few times the senator moved to cut Wilson off, but the former ambassador did not notice.
Republicans answered with their own news conference to denounce Wilson for perpetrating a political "sham." By then, Wilson was moving on to CNN, where he told Wolf Blitzer he still thinks Rove is "worthy of frog-marching out of the White House."