A Tale of Two Crimes

Michael Barone

3/12/2007 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

"History will be kind to me," Winston Churchill once said, "for I intend to write it."

Indeed, he did. His multiple-volume histories of the two world wars are still widely read, though discounted by professional historians as incomplete and in some ways misleading.

Churchill is not the only politician who has wanted to write the history of his times; most politicians and political operatives want at least to shape the way history views their actions.

Some are better at this than others. In the previous century, Democrats did much better at this than Republicans.

Most of us still see the events of the first two-thirds of the 20th century through the words of gifted New Deal historians like the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who told the story as Franklin Roosevelt hoped and expected it to be told. And, to judge from the response to two recent criminal proceedings, Democrats are doing it better in this century, too.

The first of these criminal proceedings, not much noticed, was the plea bargain of former national security adviser Sandy Berger for removing classified documents from the National Archives, where he had been reviewing them under the authorization of Bill Clinton in preparation for testimony about 9/11.

What he admitted to doing, after first denying it, is extraordinary. On multiple occasions he removed documents from the room where he was reading them, concealed them in his pants and socks, hid them at a construction site outside the building, took them home, and, in some cases, destroyed them.

Some of these documents may have been unique and may have contained handwritten comments that could have looked bad in light of what happened on September 11. I have known Berger more than 30 years and find it unlikely that he would have done something like this on his own.

Did Bill Clinton ask him to destroy documents that would make him look bad in history? I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I ask that question. But this or something very much like it seems to be the only explanation that makes sense. The Berger case was prosecuted by career staff in the Department of Justice, with little publicity. In 2005 Berger was fined $50,000 -- not a ruinous sum for one of his earning capacity -- ordered to perform 100 hours of community service, and had his security clearance lifted for three years, which means he could come back in a new administration after the 2008 election. The attempt to write, or un-write, history -- if it was that -- evidently succeeded.

Berger's treatment was light compared with that of Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald prosecuted him for perjury and obstruction of justice for making statements contradicted by journalists Tim Russert and Matt Cooper, and last week, the 11-member jury found him guilty on four counts. He could face years in jail. The case arose out of attempts by Libby and others to refute the charges of retired diplomat Joseph Wilson that the administration had manipulated intelligence before the Iraq war.

Wilson is the Titus Oates of our time, a liar whose lies served the needs of a political faction. Oates's lie was that there was a "popish plot" to murder King Charles II; Wilson's lie was part of the "Bush lied and people died" mantra that has become the canonical version of history to much of the mainstream media and the Democratic Party.

Wilson's story, retailed to journalists and then presented in a column in The New York Times, was that he had debunked evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger and that his report had circulated in the highest levels of the administration; he suggested that he had been sent to Niger in response to a request by Cheney.

In fact, as a 2004 bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee found, all those claims were false, as well as his denial that his wife had recommended him for the Niger trip.

Still, the "Bush lied and people died" mantra resonates. Yet there was no lie. Given Saddam Hussein's previous use of weapons of mass destruction and his refusal to cooperate with weapons inspectors, George W. Bush had to assume he had WMDs, just as Bill Clinton had before him -- as we were reminded by Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech in favor of the Iraq war resolution.

The Libby verdict in no way undercuts that. But the Republicans are running behind in the battle to write history.