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Shakespeare Knew all About Deniability

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

It's called deniability. By keeping a president out of the loop, his loyal aides can hope to insulate him against any accusation that he knew of the dirty tricks being played on his opponents. That doesn't make the tricks any cleaner, or that the chief executive is any less responsible for what is done by his administration. But by keeping him in the dark, his aides can claim he knew nothing of all the skullduggery practiced in his interest.


. .

In the case of an exceptionally dense or just exceptionally cautious president, this claim might even be true, an Extra Added Bonus and a rare virtue indeed in the forest of cover-ups that begins to overwhelm American presidents when the second-term blues set in.

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Here's the latest example of how the Great Game of Deniability is played: It now comes out that, despite earlier claims from the president's press secretary, the White House knew that an inspector general's report was about to show that the IRS had targeted conservative groups like the tea party for special scrutiny. The president's counsel knew it, the president's chief of staff knew it. But it seems they were careful not to tell the president about it.

The current presidential press secretary's name is Jay Carney, but it might as well be Ron Ziegler, who was Richard Nixon's mouthpiece and was always being caught up in his own contradictions.

How could Mr. Carney claim the president didn't know that this scandal at the IRS was about to blow up on him -- even though his closest advisers did? Jay Carney explained that "some matters are not appropriate to convey to him, and this (was) one of them."

That way, like any gang boss called to testify before the old McClellan Committee back in the mobsterish Fifties, the president can claim, "I didn't know nuttin.' " It seems you can take a president out of Chicago, but not the Chicago out of a president.


. .

Lois Lerner, the bureaucrat who was supposed to be in charge of this whole, highly dubious operation at the IRS, has now taken the Fifth before a congressional investigating committee. Which is her every right, but it does provide another illustration of just how open this administration that was going to be "transparent" has become -- transparent as a brick wall. Hope and Change may have become words now used only ironically to describe what this administration offers, but its Audacity is more audacious than ever.

Talk about a flashback: Ms. Lerner's taking the Fifth brings back the Fifties, complete with its superficial layer of cool propriety over all the grubby manipulations underneath. One almost expects the shades of John L. McClellan and his chief investigator/prosecutor/persecutor, an up-and-coming fellow named Robert F. Kennedy, to appear at these current hearings -- alongside the ghosts of Jimmy Hoffa, Dave Beck, Vito Genovese and enough mob bosses to fill a good-sized hearing room. And now we're told the president of the United States, too, didn't know nuttin'. Or even suspect a lot.

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Deniability. It's become almost a standard feature of modern presidential politics, whether the subject is Watergate, Iran-Contra, L'Affaire Lewinsky and now the games at the IRS. But the history of deniability goes back a lot further. All the way back to an Elizabethan playwright of some note, W. Shakespeare.


Master Will knew all about deniability and how it works. See Act II, Scene 7 of Antony and Cleopatra. The names may be different now, but the way White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough served their president is pretty much how a Roman statesman named Pompey wished his friend and servant Menas had had the subtlety to pull off.

In Shakespeare's account, Pompey is entertaining the Roman triumvirate -- Marc Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus -- aboard his galley when Menas interrupts him during cocktail hour. It seems Pompey's major-domo has devised a scheme that's sure to work, and he can't resist letting his boss know how clever he's been to come up with it.

Menas begins his whispered aside with Pompey by tempting him with the one lure no politician may be able to resist -- power. Great power.

"Wilt thou be lord of all the world?" asks Menas.

"What says't thou?" asks Pompey, who heard him very well.

"Wilt thou be lord of all the world? That's twice."

"How should that be?"

"But entertain it, and, although thou think me poor, I am the man will give thee all the world."

"Hast thou drunk well?" asks Pompey, who's been the one drinking.

"Now, Pompey, I have kept me from the cup. Thou art, if thou dar'st be, the earthly Jove: Whate'er the ocean pales or sky inclips is thine, if thou wilt have't."

"Show me which way," says Pompey, who is not an unambitious man, and Menas shows him:


"These three world-sharers, these competitors, are in thy vessel: let me cut the cable; and when we are put off, fall to their throats: All then is thine."

. .

Given the deterioration of the English language since its Elizabethan zenith, such a scheme might today be known as Policy Proposal 89, Operation Globe. And given the growth of bureaucracy since Pompey's time (it was not inconsiderable then) Menas' draft proposal might have to go through three different levels of the National Security Council before being considered, debated, redrafted and then indefinitely postponed.

Not so in one of Shakespeare's historical plays, which require, among other things, clarity and moral force as well as drama.

. .

Menas gets an immediate response to his proposal, though it is not the one he had hoped for:

"Ah," says Pompey, "this thou shouldst have done, and not have spoken on't! In me 'tis villainy; in thee't had been good service. Thou must know 'tis not my profit that does lead mine honour; mine honour it. Repent that e'er thy tongue hath so betray'd thine act: being done unknown, I should have found it afterwards well done; but must condemn it now. Desist, and drink."

Ah, well, so go the best-laid plans of mice and White House courtiers. Pompey, saddled with a jabbering aide like Menas, would have found the current White House counsel and chief of staff much more to his liking. More important than knowing what to advise him, they would know what to keep from him.


Yes, much better to let the dirty work go forward and have the president learn the grimy details only later, if ever. And then, if necessary, he can deny ever knowing about it and, in the most righteous tones, fire a head bureaucrat or two and snuff out the whole scandal. That's the essence of what in our era has come to be known as Plausible Deniability. It's also called "insulating" the chief executive. Pompey would have called it good service.

As Shakespeare has Pompey say, "being done unknown, I should have found it afterwards well done; but must condemn it now." Describing how the IRS had targeted his critics, the president sounded shocked, shocked! And proceeded to fire the IRS' top administrator. For his presidential aides had provided him with ... deniability. Pompey would have been proud of them.

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