Blowback: Bush, Plame and the Politics of Payback
Washington is on pins and needles as all await word from CIA leak special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Reuters reports that Fitzgerald may convene the grand jury as early as Tuesday to seek indictments. What began as an investigation into the outing of a covert CIA operative has grown to encompass perjury and obstruction of justice, and perhaps even cast doubt on the candor of the administration's rationale for the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the Bush White House is one of "palpable silence."
While it will be months until we know the results of the PlameGate investigation, there is one thing we can conclude with certainty. Finally, President George W. Bush is being punished for his "Politics of Payback". After five years of savage and baseless attacks on the likes of Richard Clarke, General Eric Shinseki, Paul O'Neill, Jim Jeffords, and Richard Foster, the small, mean-spirited, venal and vengeful George W. Bush is paying the price.
The assault on Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie shows all the defining traits - retribution, secrecy, and belief in its own infallibility - of the Bush White House. Sent by the CIA to Niger in 2002 in response to an inquiry by Vice President Cheney, Wilson concluded reports that Iraq sought uranium there were unfounded. It was only after President Bush spoke the infamous "16 words" regarding Iraq and Niger in his 2003 State of the Union, a claim subsequently propagated his administration, that Wilson on July 6, 2003 went public about what he didn't find in Africa. Wilson's revelations threatened to undermine the narrative of Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, the principal Bush case for war.
The administration's war against Wilson began long before his New York Times op-ed piece. Members of the White House Iraq Group, including Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, began preparations to discredit Wilson. By the time Bush water carrier Robert Novak outed Wilson's CIA agent wife, Valerie Plame, Rove and Libby had already been seeding reporters, including Matt Cooper, Judith Miller and Tim Russert. Libby's almost fanatical campaign continued into April 2004, ending only when White House communications director Dan Bartlett halted it due to its counterproductive effects for the President.
The Plame Affair shows that President Bush, the preeminent practitioner of the Politics of Payback, was concerned not about treason and threats to American national security in his own White House, but only about political embarrassment. Cross George W. Bush on his Iraq policy, the White House made clear, and there would be hell to pay.
As it turns out, the real message of the Bush White House all along was just "don't cross George W. Bush." The war on Joseph Wilson was not the exception to the rule, but the rule itself. Bush's Politics of Payback has a large body count, with casualties across virtually every area of policy. To cite just a few instances:
- John McCain. Leading up to the South Carolina primary in 2000, Bush operatives phoned voters with push polls implying McCain was anti-Catholic, his wife Cindy a drug addict, and that they had an illegitimate black child. (In reality and quite admirably, they'd adopted a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh) All of these slurs came as candidate Bush chastised McCain that he couldn't "take the high horse and then claim the low road."
- Jim Jeffords. An early indication of the new President's vindictiveness came with the saga of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP in 2001. This is a tale of double-retribution. First, Jeffords refused to back the Bush tax cut plan in 2001. As The New Republic reported, the White House responded by gutting special education programs supported by Jeffords and by threatening the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact critical to the Vermont milk industry. To add insult to injury, the Bush team took the unprecedented step of not inviting Jeffords to a White House event honoring a teacher from Vermont. They even denied Jeffords' office White House tour passes for his constituents. His departure from the GOP seemed understandable then and now.
- General Eric Shinseki. In February 2003, General Shinseki presciently forecast to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Iraqi occupation would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers." In response, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who dismissed his estimates as "wildly off the mark", savaged Shinseki. Secretary Rumsfeld echoed the attack, "the idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far off the mark." In June 2003, essentially forced from the service, the honorable war hero Shinseki retired.
- Richard Clarke. Clarke, a 30 year civil servant whose career spanned Republican and Democratic administrations, made damning - and unrefuted - charges about the Bush team's mishandling of the pre-9/11 terror threat and the war on Iraq. His book Against All Enemies and powerful testimony before the 9/11 commission were met with a withering personal assault by the Bush administration. While Cheney and Rice merely dissembled, others in the administration like Dan Bartlett implied he was gay ("weird") with the support of Laura Ingraham ("that little fop"), Ann Coulter ("this angry, embittered, strange man with no personal life was in this misogynistic snit with her [Rice]"), Dennis Miller ("fury of a woman scorned") and other conservative hacks.
- Paul O'Neill. During his tenure as Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill ("Big O" or "Pablo" to Bush) was largely ignored by the administration and mildly scorned by conservatives. But when his story about Bush's 2001 Iraq war planning appeared in Ron Suskind's book, O'Neill was quickly brutalized - and investigated. Compared to the all-out on war on Richard Clarke, though, this was a mercy killing.
- Richard Foster. Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was threatened with dismissal by then-agency chief Thomas Scully if he answered questions from congressional Democrats about the true cost of the Medicare reform bill before a series of key votes last summer. Foster's numbers showed that the administration's package over ten years would cost a whopping $550 billion, and not the $400 billion figure shared with Congress. The true numbers were released by the Bush administration only after the bill's passage.
As it turns out, Bush knew all along about Rove's involvement in the Wilson affair. In a letter to Bush, Senator Charles Schumer concluded what should now be clear to all Americans, "It seems you may have been angry that White House officials were caught, not that they had compromised national security."
What should also be clear to all Americans is that it is vindictiveness, secrecy and venom that so define the Bush administration. Less than half of Americans now view Bush as trustworthy; less than a quarter see him as a "successful president." With his approval numbers languishing at 40%, his second term may be doomed. The chickens (or better still, chickenhawks) are coming home to roost.
We haven't heard from Patrick Fitzgerald yet about the skullduggery in the Bush White House. But at long last, George W. Bush is finally paying the price for it.