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Lies, Justice, and the Punditocracy’s “Place”
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Lies, Justice, and the Punditocracy’s “Place”

Remember when lying under oath was the worst thing in the world?

Libby’s commuted sentence makes you wonder what happened to the days when lying under oath was the worst thing in the world.

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Allow me to refresh your memory: Once upon a time, we heard Stuart Taylor of The National Journal complaining on “Meet the Press” that “I’d like to be able to tell my children, ‘You should tell the truth. I’d like to be able to tell them, ‘You should respect the president.’ And I’d like to be able to tell them both things at the same time.” 

His colleague on that same program, William J. Bennett, spoke of the “moral and intellectual disarmament” that befalls a nation when its president is not “being a decent example” and “teaching kids the difference between right and wrong.” “We have a right to say to this president, ‘What you have done is an example to our children that’s a disgrace,’” he added.

These views were seconded by Cokie Roberts, who said she “approach[ed] this as a mother.” “This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us ashamed of him,” she said. (Her children were fully grown, but perhaps unusually sensitive.) On “The McLaughlin Group,” the panel spent some time actually discussing whether that same president, was, in fact, Satan. I am not making this up.

Apparently, the problem was not so much the lies, but who was doing the lying. As “Dean” David Broder famously explained to famed Georgetown hostess and sometime reporter Sally Quin of then-president Bill Clinton: “He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.” 

Other pundits made similar points. “We have our own set of village rules,” says David Gergen, editor at large for U.S. News & World Report, who worked for both the Reagan and Clinton White House. “We all live together, we have a sense of community, there’s a small-town quality here. We all understand we do certain things, we make certain compromises. But when you have gone over the line, you won’t bring others into it. That is a cardinal rule of the village. You don’t foul the nest. “

“This is a community in all kinds of ways,” insisted Roberts, whose husband was a pundit, whose parents both served in Congress, and whose brother is a high-powered corporate lobbyist. “When something happens everybody gathers around. . . . It’s a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit. We think being a worthwhile public servant or journalist matters.”

Well, never mind. George W. Bush has decided that Scooter Libby’s lies to a Washington grand jury do not merit a single day of jail time—despite the fact that a Republican-appointed special prosecutor recommended it and a Republican-appointed judge demanded it. And all of a sudden lying is just fine with Washington’s “Powers that Be.”

New York Times neo-con David Brooks is thrilled that the“farce” of the Libby case has finally allowed “justice” to “rear its head.” National Review’s Mark Levin explains that “The way I see it, Lewis Libby was about to become a political prisoner and the president prevented that.” (Ironically Levin’s previous post linked to a story about the conviction of a Democratic senator’s son and remarked that “I assume he’ll serve at least as long as Paris Hilton.’)

Yet The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page leads the charge for a full pardon, complaining: “[B]y failing to issue a full pardon, Mr. Bush is evading responsibility for the role his administration played in letting the Plame affair build into fiasco and, ultimately, this personal tragedy.” Martin Peretz, writing on his TNR blog, criticizes those “who cannot bear the thought that this president has used his clear and not at all questionable constitutional power to commute the sentence of or pardon anyone sentenced by a federal court,” and calls the entire case “foul.”

“Justice” in the eyes of the Washington punditocracy apparently means that the president has the obligation to prevent the judiciary from carrying out its constitutional role and ignore the sentencing guidelines that conservatives have consistently supported. It also means disregarding what remains of Bush’s own Justice Department’s recommendations, as well as the principles that he clearly stated while serving both as president and as governor of Texas.

Clinton’s lies and Libby’s lies do have one undeniable similarity. In both cases, the pundits proved themselves to be profoundly out of touch with the public. As John Harris observes in his history of the period, The Survivor, on the night Clinton offered his prime-time, post-testimony national apology, network commentary was overwhelmingly negative. Calls for Clinton to resign reigned on pundit television and on the op-ed pages throughout the ordeal—often couched in terms of doing so “for the children.”

Yet Clinton pollster Mark Penn would soon find, Harris explains, that “a clear majority of viewers thought Clinton’s remarks were fine… It was only hard-core Republicans and political ‘elites’—the kind of people quoted by the networks—who were dissatisfied with the speech.” This would prove, Harris observes, “a vivid example of the dichotomy in public opinion that had existed all year.” Indeed, Clinton’s approval rating hovered between the mid-sixties and the low seventies through the entire ordeal. And here again, while a chorus of pundits pounded the table for Libby’s clemency—and many have even coughed up actual money—the public saw the matter completely differently.

As Media Matters reported, a July 3 New York Times article reporting on President Bush’s commutation of Libby’s sentence asserted that “[t]he criminal case” involving Libby “polarized public opinion almost as much as the [Iraq] war itself.” The article added that “[c]onservative backers of Mr. Bush contended that because no one was charged with leaking” the identity of former CIA agent Valerie Plame, “the investigation should have been dropped altogether,” while “[o]thers said that lying to a grand jury was a serious offense.” When the original verdict was announced, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, appearing on “Hardball,” announced an imaginary poll in which a majority of the public preferred a pardon.

In fact, public opinion polls have consistently found a strong majority agreeing with the jury’s verdict and the court’s sentence. (Time put the number in favor of a pardon at 21 percent, with roughly 70 percent opposed.) Additionally, opinion polls taken prior to Bush’s commutation of Libby’s sentence found that a strong majority believed Bush should not pardon Libby under any imaginable circumstances.

As Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall noted, a commutation actually serves Bush and Cheney’s purposes better than a pardon because a pardon would mean that Libby was no longer exposed to criminal sanctions and thus had no Fifth Amendment privilege. This would force him to answer further questions about potentially criminal behavior by the president, the vice president, and their underlings.

They are probably safe for now. After all, they were only lying in order to con the nation into a costly and ruinous war. It’s not as if anyone fouled anybody’s nest or trashed “their” place.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, and his seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Research Assistant: Tim Fernholz

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