October 18, 2005
'Rule of Law'? That's So 90s

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- 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.

Those who 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.

Clinton's 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.''

The old conservative talking points are now inoperative.

It's especially 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.

DeLay's 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.

The most 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.

This case 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 strategy.

Since President 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 the bloodletting.

In Wilson's 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.

Before he 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.''

These cases 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

E. J. Dionne Jr.

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