For 22 months, Patrick Fitzgerald was an actor in a silent movie, saying little more than "good morning" while others raised questions about his hauling top administration officials before his secret grand jury. Yesterday, the prosecutor finally got his day in the court of public opinion.

Asked about criticism that he was a partisan on a witch hunt, the man who indicted a sitting White House official for the first time since the 19th century shot back: "One day I read that I was a Republican hack, another day I read that I was a Democratic hack -- and the only thing I did between those two nights was sleep."

Breaking his long public silence, Fitzgerald gave a 66-minute news conference yesterday explaining his case against Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. But his appearance was as much about answering the charge that will inevitably be lodged against Fitzgerald himself: that he exceeded his charter and brought charges on "technicalities" rather than major crimes.

The prosecutor had prepared his defense well. "That talking point won't fly," he said when a questioner raised the anticipated criticism. "If it is proven that the chief of staff to the vice president went before a federal grand jury and lied under oath repeatedly and fabricated a story . . . that is a very, very serious matter," said Fitzgerald, 44, licking his lips frequently and moving his eyes back and forth across the line of eight cameras. "The truth is the engine of our judicial system, and if you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost."

Fitzie, as some pals call him, came straight from prosecutorial central casting: He spoke with a street-tough Brooklyn accent and laid out his case with the matter-of-fact assurance of a police captain explaining how his officers gained entrance to the premises and apprehended the suspect.

Seldom glancing at notes and eschewing stage makeup, Fitzgerald expressed amusement with the attention he's getting ("I think someone interviewed the person who shined my shoes the other day") and a fierce determination to stay within what he called the "four corners of the indictment." Asked to compare his probe with that of Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky matter, he replied: "I don't even know how to answer that. I'm just going to take a dive."

In a political environment where prosecutions can become about the accuser as much as the accused -- a matter Ken Starr knows something about -- Fitzgerald's deft performance made it clear that the administration's defenders will have a difficult time presenting him as anything but clean and independent. The weight of his presentation could give pause to opponents who would say he brought charges only to justify the investigation.

Fitzgerald seemed acutely aware that he was being judged by millions of Americans. At least 10 times he made references to cameras, microphones or people viewing on TV. When asked why he didn't bring charges on the leaking of classified information, he tried to play ball. "I know baseball analogies are the fad these days," Fitzgerald said, perhaps referring to John Roberts's pledge to be an "umpire" on the Supreme Court -- which set off a World Series of baseball metaphors in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He likened his role to that of an umpire trying to determine whether a pitcher beaned a batter intentionally or by accident. "And what we have when someone charges obstruction of justice is the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes. He's trying to figure out what happened, and somebody blocked their view."

As sports metaphors go, Fitzgerald didn't quite hit that one out of the park. And he occasionally sounded defensive about his decision to prosecute the coverup rather than the crime; he said that he would hold a "truck driver" to the same standard as Libby. Sixteen times, he found it necessary to use the word "serious" as he described the charges.

More engaging was Fitzgerald's self-awareness at the need to dodge the main question about the fate of Karl Rove, identified in the indictment only as "Official A."

"For all the sand thrown in your eyes, it sounds like you do know the identity of the leaker," Newsweek's Michael Isikoff ventured. "Can you explain why that official was not charged in this indictment?"

Fitzgerald would not. "I can't give you answers," he said.

When somebody tried again, Fitzgerald replied: "I'm afraid I'm going to have find a polite way of repeating my answer to Mr. Isikoff's question." When a third questioner tried, the prosecutor joked: "I would refer you to Mr. Isikoff, who took great notes on his question about people not charged, which I cannot answer."

Before Fitzgerald took the stage, an official announced that "there will be no time limit" for the news conference and that "his intention is to take every question." That proved overly ambitious, as journalists overflowed from the 90 seats in the room and crammed the aisles. The questioning quickly became redundant, and the prosecutor was running out of ways to say nothing. Fourteen times, Fitzgerald reported that "I can't" do what questioners wanted, as in "I can't tell you," "I can't give you answers," "I can't and I wouldn't" or "I can't go beyond that."

About one thing, however, Fitzgerald was unequivocal.

"Have you learned anything," somebody asked, "about the way inside Washington works that surprised you?"

"Yes," the prosecutor replied. There was no need to elaborate.

Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, with investigator Jack Eckenrode of the FBI, fields reporters' questions about the charges against the vice president's chief of staff.