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Libby’s Pardon
The Failure of Mr. Bush

Haloed by his own name

There was always something excessively distasteful about the Lewis Libby trial. It wasn’t the five felony counts of lying to investigators and misleading a grand jury, or his conviction on four of them, or what it revealed of the incestuous corruptions between the nodes of power and the Washington press corps that did so much to cover up the larger crime the Libby trial danced around (the Iraq war). It wasn’t even that Libby’s conviction had nothing to do with the original offense (the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name). The distaste about it all was that it was a farce from the start—an unwitting show trial headed for its inevitable dismantling at the hands of a president to whom even the Department of Justice is a basement annex in a machinery of expedience.

What Bush calls a compromise is, of course, a pardon. That Libby still has a $250,000 fine to pay, that he’s on probation, that he can’t practice law anymore is all beside the point. The money he owes will be raised in a day’s radiothon. It doesn’t take a law degree to practice lobbying, to rake in money on the talk circuit, to play adviser to scoundrels, to be in the shadows of Dick Cheney’s shadows all over again. Fines and probation and ruined careers affect ordinary people. Libby is no ordinary man. He is a Bush administration Untouchable, taking one for the team and being rewarded for it. And still, the Wall Street Journal found room to excoriate Bush for not giving the full pardon, for playing into the half-guilt of a man who “deserved better from the President whose policies he tried to defend when others were running for cover.”

“But by failing to issue a full pardon,” the Journal wrote, “Mr. Bush is evading responsibility for the role his Administration played in letting the Plame affair build into fiasco and, ultimately, this personal tragedy.” That about sums up the neocon re-writing of the last five years. Just as Oliver North managed to single-handedly turn the Reagan Administration’s illegal war (and war crimes) in Central America into a cause for the “just,” for “freedom fighters” and apple pie, just as Oliver North managed to turn the Iran-Contra scandal from what should have led to Reagan’s impeachment into another springboard to ideological vindication and (for North) stardom, Lewis Libby, in the reactionaries’ eyes, is single-handedly deflecting the tragedy and crimes of the Iraq war onto his own supposed personal valor and loyalty, his sacrifice, his, if the Journal is to be believed, honesty.

It wasn’t about cooking up a false case for war, nor about manufacturing the demolition of a country on the basis of that lie (a lie even now the Journal denies when it writes about “Joe Wilson’s original, false accusation about pre-war intelligence”). It was about a man standing up for just policies leading to a just war that a special prosecutor’s zeal and a liberal press’ hatred for America ruined for all of us.

The symbolic temptation is to think that by pardoning Libby, Bush is pardoning himself of whatever crimes he committed. But that would presume a sense of justice at the core of the president’s thinking. What the pardon shows in as stark a light as any aborting of justice Bush has orchestrated is his utter contempt for the law, for the very system he defends but has never upheld. But if he and Cheney have been so easily amused at making buffalo chips of due process in their so-called global war on terror, in Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, what should, what could keep them from doing the same at home?

I’m reminded of an Onion story a year ago spoofing that book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters about Barry Bonds’ steroid abuse: “With the publication of a book detailing steroid use by San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds, two San Francisco Chronicle reporters have corroborated the claims of Bonds’ steroid abuse made by every single person who has watched or even loosely followed the game of baseball over the past five years.” The logo that accompanied the story said it all: “No Shit.”

The other inevitable comparison that comes to mind is the Gerald Ford pardon of Nixon in 1974. It was a bit revolting, back in December when Ford died, to read once again the press’ toadying over that pardon. Seen at the time as an insult to the Constitution, it’s been revised since as a “healing” gesture that spared the country more anguish than it needed. As if the United States were an infant, an emotionally deranged democracy that needed cuddling above all. Cuddling Ford provided. But the Times was right at the time, headlining its editorial plainly enough: “The Failure of Mr. Ford.” Not President Ford, mind you, but Mr. Ford: By pardoning Nixon, Ford had abjured his claim to the title. He had, in the Times’ words, “affronted the Constitution and the American system of justice.” Odd how the reasons Ford gave for his pardon dovetail those Bush gave for Libby’s. Nixon/Libby suffered enough. Bush/Ford had to act on his own conscience. Far from a healing act, the Nixon pardon laid the groundwork for the erosion of justice at its core, making pardons like Libby’s the required routine rather than the surprise.

And still in the end the Libby cesspool adds up to nothing more than the last act in a predictable made-for-television movie. If you’re looking at all this through the eyes of an Iraqi, the war crimes carry on untouched, the demolition of Iraq is complete, the mocking of the American justice system continues apace, with Alberto Gonzales at Justice, Dick Cheney at the vice-presidency, and, at the center of it all, Mr. Bush, the criminal-in-chief, oblivious, in our face, unrepentant, and even, from time to time, sainted by the very press that continues the incestuous relationship with power that got us this far down the drain pipes: “Bush,” the Post wrote in a half-fawning, half-horrified profile on Monday, “has virtually given up on winning converts while in office and instead is counting on vindication after he is dead. ‘He almost has . . . a sense of fatalism,’ said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who recently spent a day traveling with Bush. ‘All he can do is do his best, and 100 years from now people will decide if he was right or wrong. It doesn’t seem to be a false, macho pride or living in your own world. I find him to be amazingly calm.’”

Isn’t that what was said of Saddam on the scaffold?

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