November 3, 2005
In Washington, A Reappearance of Adult Virtues

By Steve Chapman

From the accounts of friends, associates and assorted admirers of Samuel Alito Jr., some of the Supreme Court nominee's personal attributes stand out. It's universally agreed that he's modest, careful, thoroughly professional and firmly committed to a clear set of principles. Which raises the question: How often do you hear those qualities associated with anyone connected to the Bush administration?

Just last week, someone with similar traits was announcing the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff for an alleged coverup that was almost comically inept. Patrick Fitzgerald, often demonized as a rabid inquisitor trampling the Constitution to make a name for himself, turned out to be a model of painstaking precision and restraint, motivated only by the belief that even the powerful should obey the law.

The contrast between the special counsel's conscientious presentation and the behavior that prompted his investigation was the difference between Morgan Freeman and Jim Carrey. Alito's record, meanwhile, demonstrates that conservatism is not incompatible with humility and intellectual honesty.

Both Alito and Fitzgerald are Bush appointees, and excellent ones. The wonder is that their most admirable character traits didn't disqualify them from consideration by a White House that, as a general matter, neither practices nor respects such virtues.

Lewis Libby worked for Dick Cheney, who was once taken as proof of Bush's seriousness. When the inexperienced governor of Texas chose the levelheaded Washington veteran as his running mate, most experts though it showed Bush's willingness to rely on competent people with a sober grasp of the world's realities. Once in office, though, Cheney helped lead the president into a disastrous war in Iraq.

The vice president, more than anyone else, should have known better. As defense secretary under George H.W. Bush, he directed the first Gulf War, which went much better than the second one.

In 1992, asked why the United States was content to evict Iraq from Kuwait while leaving Saddam Hussein in power, Cheney replied: "Once we had rounded him up and gotten rid of his government, then the question is what do you put in its place. You know, you then have accepted the responsibility for governing Iraq." He asked, "How many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damn many."

That was the Cheney the nation thought it was getting five years ago. But we might all identify with Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush's national security adviser, who said recently, "Dick Cheney I don't know anymore." It's the new Cheney who apparently thought it was a fine idea to unmask a CIA operative for political reasons, heedless of the damage to national security.

He's just one of many administration officials who have distinguished themselves by hubris, recklessness or simple incompetence. There was John Ashcroft, who said critics concerned about civil liberties "only aid terrorists." There was Donald Rumsfeld, who scoffed at warnings that a larger force might be needed to occupy Iraq.

There was Michael Brown, whose inexperience in disaster relief didn't keep him from becoming head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There was Karen Hughes, who doesn't speak Arabic and has no background in Middle Eastern affairs, yet was put in charge of improving America's image in the Arab world. There was Harriet Miers.

Occasionally, wise heads were found in administration councils -- such as economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, who predicted the Iraq war could cost $200 billion, and Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who said several hundred thousand troops might be needed to reconstruct the country. Lindsey was soon fired, while Shinseki was publicly humiliated.

But the problem starts at the top. Bush, who criticized President Clinton for overextending the military and intervening too much abroad, did an about-face on foreign policy after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. After deriding Al Gore as a spendthrift who trusted government more than he trusted the people, Bush embarked on a massive expansion of the federal budget. The Bush who in 2000 said the United States should be a "humble nation" affected a pugnacious swagger that alienated even our allies.

Modest? Careful? Intellectually honest? Not this president or his subordinates.

Politics and law are separate spheres, which attract different sorts of people and reward different personal traits. But the qualities on display in Alito and Fitzgerald happen to be admirable and valuable in any field. To see how well their virtues have served the country is to wonder how much more successful this administration might have been with grownups in charge.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Steve Chapman

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