George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon have at least this much in common: The White House of each abused the power of the president in order to destroy their critics and then tried to cover it up. As Americans would discover, Nixon was personally complicit but we do not know yet about Bush. He may have been only ignorant, which is his story so far.
So many parallels, so many contradictions. Journalists were central to each episode, Watergate and Valerie Plame. But they were heroes in Watergate and, though much of the media try their damnedest, it is hard to make the case that they were anything but goats or perhaps much worse in the Bush administration’s outing of Plame, a U.S. secret agent.
Editorials and columns across the country continue to pour invective on the courts that sent the New York Times’ Judith Miller to jail for refusing to tell who talked to her about the Plame incident, and they have raised scary scenarios of a press rendered impotent because they cannot legally protect sources who whisper dirty secrets to them.
When W. Mark Felt unmasked himself as Deep Throat this spring, the timing was perfect to ask the now wearily familiar question: What would Woodward and Bernstein have done if they had known that they might go to jail for refusing to identify the FBI official who tipped them on the White House and Justice Department’s cover-up of Watergate crimes?
But a few in the media, notably our native naysayer, Gene Lyons, have dared to say that Miller and Time magazine’s Matt Cooper deserved no honor for protecting the administration man who broke the law by exposing the wife of Joseph Wilson to assassination and rendering her useless as a CIA agent.
You will remember that the CIA hired Wilson to go to Africa to check out the rumor that Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire nuclear material from Niger. Wilson reported back that it was untrue, but Bush cited the fake Niger event anyway as evidence that the United States needed to go to war to prevent Iraq from threatening its neighbors and the United States with nuclear bombs. When Wilson exposed the fraud in an op-ed article in The New York Times in July 2003, a vengeful White House exposed his wife’s identity as a secret U.S. agent by leaking it to friendly columnist Bob Novak. Other newspapers would not use the tip but did not expose the White House tipster, presidential aide Karl Rove, when the controversy arose.
This apparently is how it worked: Journalists everywhere will recognize the tactic. Either Rove or Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, would leak Plame’s identity to a reporter. Reporters need a corroborating source, so Rove or Libby would suggest the other as someone he might check with.
Last week, Michael Wolff, writing in Vanity Fair, said Miller, Cooper, their news organizations and Novak, had aided in the cover-up of a major federal crime, one the elder President Bush equated with treason. By covering up a crime in which they were invited by Rove to participate and not reporting one of the biggest stories of the Bush presidency, Wolff wrote, they betrayed their readers and the country and perhaps dramatically altered the course of history.
Wolff points out that Mark Felt was exposing perfidy at the highest levels of government when he tipped Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post writers, on Nixon’s misdeeds. Rove, on the other hand, was the lawbreaker and he was using the reporters and their newspapers to commit the crime. The correct parallel with Watergate would be if Nixon or his aide H. R. Haldeman or Attorney General John Mitchell had confessed his crimes to the reporters. They, of course, would have been honor-bound not to write about it and Watergate might be unsolved to this day.
Practically the whole Washington press corps knew that Rove was the administration source who confided to favorite contacts in the press. But no one in the Washington press wrote what was happening. And most of them must have known of Rove’s long history of dirty work, before and after he joined the Bush family. We are indebted to Tom Hamburger, once at the Arkansas Gazette and now an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, for laying it out for us once again.
Rove came to the Bushes’ attention when he was accused of dirty tricks while seeking the national presidency of the Young Republicans. The elder Bush, the Republican national chairman, investigated and concluded that Rove’s actions were OK. In fact, he admired Rove’s cunning so much that he hired him. Rove would work in all the elder and younger Bush campaigns. He would be a suspect in later dirty campaign tricks.
Rove was fired from the elder Bush’s 1992 re-election campaign for leaking information about the Bush organization in Texas to — who else? — Bob Novak! Rob Mosbacher, the Bush Texas campaign chairman who was ousted for ineptness in a secret meeting at Dallas, fingered Rove as the man leaking inside campaign stuff to the media to make him look bad. Rove denied it but the Bush campaign concluded that he was lying and he had to leave. But he hooked up two years later with the younger Bush, who liked his cunning.
And that is the man the media thinks it has a constitutional duty to protect.