Monday, July 18, 2005

Rove Rage

[[P O L I T I C S]] * There’s a smart backgrounder in Sunday’s New York Times about the storied indispensability of presidential right-hand-men and the likelihood of Karl Rove, “the architect” of George W. Bush’s troubled presidency--and, with vice-presidential chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, one of the sources behind the media’s “outing” of onetime CIA covert operative Valerie Plame--being jettisoned from the White House for political reasons.

Times writer Anne E. Kornblut explains that “only a few presidential confidants as indispensable as Mr. Rove have ever been thrown overboard, and then reluctantly.” She cites the examples of Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams; Jimmy Carter’s friend and advisor Bert Lance, who was also his director of the Office of Management and Budget; and three of Richard Nixon’s “most trusted aides”--chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman--all of whom went into the Watergate grinder ahead of their boss. She might have added to that list Donald Regan, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff (and former Treasury Secretary), who fancied himself as the president’s “prime minister”--at least until the Iran-Contra scandal made him a convenient sacrificial lamb.

Kornblut quotes “one former Republican official” with continuing close White House ties, who envisions a political cost in keeping Rove on as deputy chief of staff and senior advisor:
“If Karl survives, he does so at the president’s political expense,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as disloyal to Mr. Rove.

“George W. Bush came into office promising two tenets that are in competition now: straight talk, non-parsing--and loyalty,” the former official said. “He’s either got to choose loyalty or straight talk. He can’t do both.”
However, Bush has been reluctant in the past to boot people from his administration, even when they have accumulated a record of speaking off script (Paul O’Neill), abject failure (Donald Rumsfeld), or outright incompetence (John Snow). Some folks, probably Bush himself, see this constancy as a character strength. But such loyalty also carries risks, as Warren G. Harding realized more than 80 years ago, when his own administration started crumbling beneath scandal. “This is a hell of a job,” Harding then groused to William Allen White, a Kansas Republican and influential newspaper editor. “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my God-damn friends, White, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floors nights!”

There are at least two serious dangers Bush faces in fighting to keep Rove around:

(1) Plamegate raises further doubts about Bush’s honesty. Despite persistent efforts by his GOP and media backers to portray Bush as a straight shooter, without a calculating bone in his body, the truth seems something quite different. Questions surrounding his length of service with the Texas Air National Guard, his trumped-up claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda ties, his dissembling on the question of how willing he was to employ diplomatic means to avert a war on Iraq (the now-infamous “Downing Street Memo” suggests that Bush was ready to start bombing a full eight months before fighting actually began)--all of these matters, and more, raise suspicions that Bush is anything but a poster boy for candor. In fact, Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman, in his excellent 2004 study, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, concluded that the United States is currently experiencing its first “post-truth presidency,” and that George W. Bush’s national electoral successes could only have come at a time when voters are more accepting of mendacity in their leaders than they were previously.

But has Bush finally pushed Americans beyond their willingness to trust? A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll not only found his approval rating dropping to 46 percent (only one point higher than his lowest rating in office), but that public trust in the president has tumbled to an all-time low, with only 41 percent of respondents saying that Bush is “honest and trustworthy” (a nine-point drop since January). And that poll was conducted before the Rove disclosures permeated the public consciousness; before Bush--whose own press secretary had asserted in September 2003 that “If anyone in this administration was involved in [leaking Plame’s identity to the press], they would no longer be in this administration”--began equivocating on that promise, suddenly hiding behind assertions that he couldn’t speak about Rove’s involvement during the ongoing investigation into Plamegate (even though he’d allowed his minions to do so before). The risk here is obvious, and has already been spelled out succinctly by Salon: “If Americans come to grasp with the fact that the White House lied about Rove’s involvement in the Plame case--or about the way Bush would respond to proof of a leak--their trust in Bush could drop even further, making it more difficult for him to vouch for Rove or push through a Supreme Court nominee on the basis of his ‘I know him, he’s a good man’ approach.”

(2) Plamegate reminds voters of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war. Rove allegedly disclosed Plame’s name to the media in order to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who’d had the temerity to question Bush’s assertion, in his 2003 State of the Union address, that Saddam Hussein was trying to procure uranium yellowcake from Niger that could be used in nuclear weapons. In July 2003, Wilson wrote in a New York Times op-ed column that he had been dispatched by the CIA in 2002 to investigate this uranium claim, but had turned up nothing, leading him to believe “that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” The repeated connection between Rove’s actions, Wilson’s assignment, and the bloody Iraq hostilities must give nightmares to White House pollsters. After all, recent surveys have shown precipitous declines in the percentage of Americans who say that the conflict in Iraq has been worth the cost in either money or lives. And there was a 15-point increase (to 54 percent) in the percentage of respondents to a recent Gallup Poll who said they believe the Iraq war has made them less safe, not more so. So the longer Bush’s Plamegate scandal rumbles through the media, the more voters are invited to wallow in their displeasure at a no-end-in-sight war that Rumsfeld said, in February 2003, “could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”

The New York Times’ estimable Frank Rich drilled home the significance of the Iraq-Rove connection in his most recent column:
This case is not about Joseph Wilson. He is, in Alfred Hitchcock's parlance, a MacGuffin, which, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a particular event, object, factor, etc., initially presented as being of great significance to the story, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops.” Mr. Wilson, his mission to Niger to check out Saddam’s supposed attempts to secure uranium that might be used in nuclear weapons and even his wife’s outing have as much to do with the real story here as Janet Leigh’s theft of office cash has to do with the mayhem that ensues at the Bates Motel in “Psycho.”

This case is about Iraq, not Niger. The real victims are the American people, not the Wilsons. The real culprit--the big enchilada, to borrow a 1973 John Ehrlichman phrase from the Nixon tapes--is not Mr. Rove but the gang that sent American sons and daughters to war on trumped-up grounds and in so doing diverted finite resources, human and otherwise, from fighting the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. That’s why the stakes are so high: this scandal is about the unmasking of an ill-conceived war, not the unmasking of a C.I.A. operative who posed for Vanity Fair.
Still, concludes reporter Kornblut, “it would take far more than the taint of impropriety for anyone so central [as Rove is] to be cut loose” from the Bush White House. More likely is that the deputy chief of staff will be kept in the fold, if out of the public eye, long enough for the Plame investigation to run its course. And as long as Rove isn’t actually prosecuted in the end--for perjury, violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, or any other crime--Bush will surely insist that he was exonerated of any wrongdoing. The only thing that might change that calculus, it seems, would be for a chorus of other Republicans to demand Karl Rove’s head, because they see the scandal surrounding him as a detriment to their own futures. Or because they see Bush’s lame-duck agenda--his scheme to “save” Social Security by undermining it, his efforts to move the U.S. Supreme Court even farther to the right, and his evidently conscious campaign to weaken the nation’s economy--being sacrificed to protect his chief political advisor.

As has been true of other summers in the past, this one is likely to be filled with talk of scandals and who knew what, when. Get the popcorn ready, and watch.

UPDATE I: During a brief appearance before the press this morning, Bush was asked if he intended to fire anyone involved in leaking Valerie Plame’s name, “regardless of whether a crime was committed.” Bush responded by saying that “I would like this to end as quickly as possible so we know the facts, and if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration.” In other words, Bush won’t fire the leaker--Rove, Libby, whoever--unless there was actually a crime committed. Hmm. In the “reality-based community,” that’s called a "flip-flop." The very thing Bush, Cheney, and their henchmen (unfairly) charged Senator John Kerry with doing in the heat of the last presidential election, and not at all the decisive action Bush had promised to take. During a June 10, 2004, press conference, Bush, when asked if he would honor his “pledge to fire anyone” who was found to have leaked Plame’s name, answered without qualification: “Yes.”

And the BS goes on ...

UPDATE II: A new ABC News poll, taken after the Rove-Plame scandal burst onto newspaper front pages last week, finds that only 25 percent of Americans believe the White House “is fully cooperating in the federal investigation of the leak of a CIA operative's identity” That’s a significant decline from the time this investigation began last September, when 47 percent of those polled believed there was such cooperation. And more bad news for Bush: 75 percent of respondents think Rove should be fired if he leaked classified information. That opinion cuts across partisan lines, with 71 percent of Republicans supporting Rove’s ouster, while 74 percent of Independents and 83 percent of Democrats want the deputy chief of staff to go.

No wonder Bush is suddenly hinting that he will announce a new U.S. Supreme Court candidate. Anything to change the subject.

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