October 18, 2005
'Rule of Law'? That's So 90s
J. Dionne Jr.
-- We are on the verge of an extraordinary moment in American
politics. The people running our government are about to face
their day -- or days -- in court.
thought investigations were a wonderful thing when Bill Clinton
was president are suddenly facing prosecutors, and they don't
like it. It seems like a hundred years ago when Bill Clinton's
defenders were accusing his opponents of using special prosecutors,
lawsuits, criminal charges and, ultimately, impeachment to overturn
the will of the voters.
conservative enemies would have none of this. No, they said over
and over, the Clinton mess was not about sex but about ``perjury
and the obstruction of justice'' and ``the rule of law.''
conservative talking points are now inoperative.
amusing to see former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay complain
about the politicization of justice. The man who spoke of the
Clinton impeachment as ``a debate about relativism versus absolute
truth'' now insists that the Democratic prosecutor in Texas who
indicted him on alleged campaign finance violations is engaged
in a partisan war. That's precisely what Clinton's defenders accused
DeLay of championing in the impeachment battle seven years ago.
supporters say charges that he transferred corporate money illegally
to local Texas campaigns should be discounted because ``everybody
does it'' when it comes to playing fast and loose with political
cash. That's another defense the champions of impeachment derided
in the Clinton imbroglio.
explosive legal case -- if special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald
brings charges, and lawyers I've spoken with will be surprised
if he doesn't -- involves Vice President Cheney's chief of staff,
I. Lewis ``Scooter'' Libby, and President Bush's top political
adviser, Karl Rove. A lot of evidence has emerged that they leaked
information about Valerie Plame, a CIA employee married to Joseph
Wilson, a former ambassador who had the nerve to question aspects
of the administration's case for waging war on Saddam Hussein.
Even if these administration heavies are not charged with improperly
unmasking Plame, they could be in legal jeopardy if they are found
to have made false statements to investigators about their role
in the Plame affair.
goes to the heart of how Republicans recaptured power after the
Clinton presidency and how they have held on to it since. The
strategy involved attacking their adversaries without pity. In
the Clinton years, the attacks married a legal strategy to a political
Bush took office, many of those who raised their voices in opposition
to the president or his policies found themselves under assault,
although the president himself maintained a careful distance from
case, the administration suggested that his hiring by the CIA
to investigate claims that Saddam was trying to acquire nuclear
material was an act of nepotism, courtesy of his wife. But administration
figures wanted to wipe their fingerprints off any smoking gun
that would link them to the anti-Wilson campaign. Judith Miller,
a New York Times reporter who went to jail to protect
Libby until she got what she took to be a release from a confidentiality
agreement, offered a revealing fact in an account of her saga
in Sunday's Times.
trashed Wilson to Miller in a July 8, 2003, meeting, Libby asked
that his comments not be attributed to a ``senior administration
official,'' the standard anonymous reference to, well, senior
administration officials. Instead, he wanted his statements attributed
to a ``former Hill staffer,'' a reference to Libby's earlier work
in Congress. Why would Libby want his comments ascribed to such
a vague source? Miller says she told the special prosecutor that
she ``assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen
as attacking Mr. Wilson.''
portray an administration and a movement that can dish it out,
but want to evade responsibility for doing so, and can't take
it when they are subjected to the same rule book that inconvenienced
an earlier president. An editorial in the latest issue of the
conservative Weekly Standard is a sign of arguments to
come. The editorial complains about the various accusations now
being leveled against DeLay, Libby, Rove and Senate Majority Leader
Bill Frist, and says that ``a comprehensive strategy of criminalization
had been implemented to inflict defeat on conservatives who seek
to govern as conservatives.''
I have great
respect for my friends at The Weekly Standard so I think
they'll understand my surprise and wonder over this new conservative
concern for the criminalization of politics. A process that was
about ``the rule of law'' when Democrats were in power is suddenly
an outrage now that it's Republicans who are being held accountable.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group