Sunday, March 11, 2007

Scooter Libby And The Poetic Imperative

“Tell the truth,” says the poet Emily Dickenson, “but tell it slant.” The poetry resides in the slant.

Bill Curry, a liberal Democrat who twice ran for governor and now writes a column for the Hartford Courant, is Connecticut’s politician poet in residence. Personally, I’ve always considered it unfortunate that Curry had not prevailed over former Gov. and felon John Rowland.

Had he won in one of his two attempts to be governor, the state almost certainly would have been spared a messy gubernatorial prosecution and threatened impeachment, and not only because Curry can be as honest as the day is long – when it suits his purpose – but also because the state’s liberal press is somewhat laggard in the matter of applying to Democrats the lashes it distributes with such relish to Republicans.

I do not doubt – as have said or intimated many times in this space – that Rowland got what he deserved, and before commenting further on Curry’s column on “Scooter” Libby, I wish to state without equivocation that Dick Cheney’s chief aide got what he deserved. If you lie to prosecutors under oath, you should go to jail.

For the purpose of this piece, I am interested mainly in examining Curry’s political poetry.

Curry begins his commentary by noting that only bloggers followed the Libby case closely, “hardly anyone else did.” And this was serious business too: “Libby's lies subverted our national security, our judiciary and our democracy, but a graver threat than his lies is our indifference to them.”

A prose writer, consulting the journalistic record, probably would not have said that hardly anyone but bloggers followed the Libby case closely. The mainstream press, particularly the poetically slanted New York Times, and the Washington Post, somewhat less inclined to poeticize, were hardly snoozing during the affair. But poets must be given their license and it would be butchery to cut the poet’s tongue out of Curry’s mouth.

Curry was once an advisor to former President Bill Clinton, who has been known to tell a stretcher or two to a grand jury without having, as Curry would doubtless agree, plunged the republic into a glacial ice age. Unlike Libby, Clinton escaped serious jail time, one of the perks in being president.

Curry is particularly eloquent on Clinton’s lies and the reaction to them of a sober citizenry. The mob, liberals included, was pawing the ground for Clinton’s impeachment when, in the nick of time, the sheriff appeared: “In the nick of time, Clinton was saved. People opposed impeachment because they saw it as a power grab and a threat to their own right to privacy. It wasn't out of love for Clinton, whose approval ratings dipped to Bush-like depths, and it certainly wasn't because they thought his lying was OK.”

It is certainly understandable why Curry should approve of jail time for Libby while balking at impeachment for Clinton, even though both had committed the same offense. Loyalty – almost always a virtue – tugs at us in different ways. Cheney, no doubt, feels the same way about Libby as Curry does about Clinton. On a purely human level, these feelings are understandable and even praiseworthy.

But the poetry of this particular line – “In outing Valerie Wilson as a CIA spy, Libby and his tight circle of cohorts knew just what they were doing and to whom” – threatens to bury a more prosaic and fruitful truth.

Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson’s wife, was not “outed” by Libby – if by outed we mean “first exposed.” The prosecutor traced the path to Libby through columnist Robert Novak. But famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward was told by someone other than Libby that Plame was connected to the Central Intelligence Agency long before Novak supposedly blew Plame’s cover. It was then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s right hand man, Richard Armitage, who first suggested to Woodward that Plame worked for the CIA – not as an under cover agent but an analyst. Armitage claimed not to know her status.

The de-poeticized truth is: 1) that Plame was not an undercover agent when she was first exposed to a reporter; 2) that she was outed by an aide to Powell, who has always publicly disagreed with President Bush’s approach to the war in Iraq; and 3) that Plame may very well have been outed by her husband Joe Wilson who, Armitage said, was talking about her “to everyone.”

Does this prosaic view of inconvenient truths disturb at all the politics of accusation?

It does not. In politics, the poetic imperative reigns supreme.

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