- I fought the Republican spin machine, and the Republican
spin machine won.
- The battlefield was a Fox News Channel studio. I had
been booked to discuss my new book (plug, plug: The Lies of George W. Bush:
Mastering the Politics of Deception), but I was also told I would be talking
about the Wilson-CIA-leak affair. That was natural, for (plug, plug) I
was the first journalist to report that a July 14 piece by conservative
columnist Robert Novak was possible evidence of a possible White House
crime. In that article, Novak, citing "senior administration officials,"
disclosed that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson was a CIA operative.
Wilson had challenged the administration on its Iraq policy - particularly
its use of the (now infamous and still unproven) claim that Saddam Hussein
had been uranium shopping in Niger - and the column seemed to be an administration
effort to undermine or punish Wilson. The leakers also may have broken
a federal law prohibiting the identification of covert officers. I noted
that in The Nation two days after the Novak column appeared. But the leak
did not become major news until two months later, when the CIA asked the
Justice Department to investigate the White House.
- The White House and its Republican compatriots then scrambled
to control the damage. GOP talking points whizzed throughout town. The
primary goal of the Bush defenders has been to depict the scandal as no
more than a political tussle. They have questioned its significance. (Maybe
Wilson's wife was merely a secretary at the CIA, said Crossfire's Tucker
Carlson, after it had been reported she was a counter-proliferation officer.)
And they have maligned Wilson in an ugly blame-the-victim campaign. They
declared - what do you know? - that Wilson was a partisan Democrat and
that he was too enthusiastically calling attention to the scandal. (Wilson,
who had been a career diplomat, and his wife have mostly contributed to
Democrats, but they did give money to Bush's primary campaign in 2000.)
One Republican aide told a reporter that the GOP had concocted a "slime
and defend" strategy.
- I ran smack into the Republican dissembling when I found
myself on Fox News facing Representative Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican
who is chair of the House Republican Leadership. The moderator began with
him. As an exercise in spin dissection, it is worth closely examining his
- "The whole thing is strange to me . . . The pieces
don't fit together . . . What would be the motive in the first place for
someone in the Bush administration to have done that? . . . You have to
be pretty cynical to say that this was something done at the highest levels,
which is what is being alleged . . . I'm not sure why it's coming up now
except for the fact that there are a lot of Democrats - particularly those
running for president - who are desperate for an issue . . . They are concerned
because the stock market just posted its second quarterly gain in three
and a half years, because the economy is growing much faster than people
thought it would."
- How many disingenuous remarks can you spot in his comments?
Here's a clue: Count the sentences. Portman tried to dismiss the controversy
as too bizarre to be true. He claimed that there was no motivation for
the leak, almost suggesting it didn't really happen, and that only a jaded
soul could suspect the leak came from the top ranks of the administration.
Yet there were plenty of motives. Take your pick. The leakers could have
been trying to smack Wilson for criticizing the administration, attempting
to intimidate others who might consider speaking out, or endeavoring to
discredit the February 2002 trip Wilson had made to Niger for the CIA as
no more than the result of nepotism. And one need not be a cynic to point
an accusing finger at the "highest levels." It was Novak who
said his sources were "senior" officials. Later, the Washington
Post reported that, according to a "senior administration official,"
two "top White House officials" had called reporters to spread
word of Valerie Wilson's CIA connection.
- And was this in the headlines now because Democratic
presidential candidates were worried about a still-jobless economic turnaround?
No, it was because the CIA - not the Democrats - had asked for a criminal
investigation that would cover senior White House officials.
- I tried to make these points. Before I was done, the
host wanted to move on, and she said, "I have to ask a couple of things
about Joe Wilson." The scandal, I replied, is not about Wilson, it
is about a possible felonious White House effort to target a critic.
- Portman then piped up: "How was this discrediting
Mr. Wilson? Using common sense . . . how does it discredit someone?"
He was deploying one of the chief tools of spin - repeat, repeat, repeat
- as he reinforced his earlier claim that there was no reason for the leak.
He went on, "I'm not saying it didn't happen. Who knows whether it
happened or not?" More weasel words, for there was a leak; it happened.
And Portman continued his roll: "But to ascribe all these political
motives on one side and then to say that Joe Wilson and the Democrats and
the others who are fanning the flame of this thing don't have any political
motives seems to me to be not balanced, not fair . . . I know the Democrats
are desperate to find something here and I just don't see it."
- Bravo. Of course, Democrats are eager to capitalize on
the scandal. And a damn-mad Wilson is crying for justice and doing all
he can to keep the case alive. (Wouldn't you?) But this has no bearing
on the action in question. The issue is not who's screaming about the leak
but who did it. Yet if Portman and the Republicans can succeed in presenting
the controversy as another one of those same-old bitter face-offs between
D's and R's - creating a moral equivalency between the leakers and the
complainants - they win. Their aim is to exploit the public's (justifiable)
cynicism toward Washington and to battle to an it's-all-politics draw.
This is a good strategy - as long as no indictments materialize.
- How did I respond to these sly comments? I didn't. Time
was up. The congressman had been granted the first word and the last. And
I am sure to many viewers it appeared as if the Wilson-leak scandal was
just the latest fodder for the never-ending food fight in Washington. With
his disingenuous rhetoric, Portman had gained the advantage. After all,
it's hard to look clean while contending with flying Jell-O. And I never
got the chance to discuss my new book about the deceptive ways of the Bush
crowd. At least, I picked up material for the paperback edition.