There can be no better metaphor for why Republicans lost congressional seats in the November 2006 elections than Vice President Dick Cheney's decision, after wounding a buddy in a hunting accident, to go hunting on Election Day.
Cheney is firing wildly again. Or so it seems, as defense lawyers are using the veep's notes during the perjury and obstruction-of-justice trial of Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Cheney is out of control.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has failed to charge anyone for illegally leaking CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson's identity. Instead, Fitzgerald is going after Libby for lying about leaking. This is a trial that never should have happened -- about leaks that do not appear to be criminal. Fitzgerald is out of control, too.
The trial has served its political purpose. As far as the Bush administration is concerned, the political damage is done. Once, Americans heard President Bush say he would fire any staffer who leaked Wilson's name. But Bush fired no one, even though Bush guru Karl Rove confirmed Wilson's identity to journalists who called him. (Be it noted, Fitzgerald is not charging Rove.)
Cheney makes things look worse for framing Libby as a fall guy. Or as Cheney jotted in a note presented in court, "Not going to protect one staffer (plus) sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."
"The incompetence of others." Now that is choice. I have no idea if Libby is guilty or not. On the one hand, Libby's story about learning Wilson's identity from a journalist is denied by the journalist. On the other hand, intelligence officials who testified against Libby have had to admit that their memories about Libby's guilt oddly have improved over time.
During an editorial board meeting, I asked former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe what he thought of Libby. He said that while any defendant should be presumed innocent, leaking a CIA officer's identity bordered on "treasonous."
If it is treasonous, why hasn't Fitzgerald charged Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who originally leaked Wilson's identity to columnist Robert Novak, thus sparking the federal probe? And why aren't more Bush critics calling for Fitzgerald to charge Armitage? The answer: Armitage was no Iraq war booster.
Besides, if Wilson's husband, Joe, didn't want his wife to be outed, he should have kept a low profile. The Washington Post got it right when it editorialized: "The person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame's CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger, and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials."
The White House had a right to set the record straight -- although you would think that the vice president would have better things to do than lead the charge. It reflects poorly on the Bushies -- and Armitage -- that it did not seem to occur to them that they might be divulging classified information.
If Cheney comes across as heavy-handed and drunk with power, he can share that honor with Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald hasn't charged admitted leakers Armitage, Rove or former press secretary Ari Fleischer -- but, in order to investigate their ostensibly illegal leaks, he made some 2,000 White House staffers produce records. And he put then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller behind bars for 85 days -- when he already knew the source of Novak's column.
In a sense, then, Cheney and Fitzgerald have something in common: Capt. Queeg. They both are willing to trample other people's lives in order to avenge perceived threats, they are both ruthless to those who do not bow to their will, and they've both lost sight of the truly big threats. The ship is off course, and they're hunting for whoever stole the strawberries.
Personal note: Please take a moment to think fondly of Molly Ivins. In person, she was lively and gracious. On paper, she brought spark, fury and wit to the opinion pages -- and I am quite relieved never to have been at the receiving end of her pen.