The Plame Game

If you’re trying to avoid working too hard and are a huge dork (check both for me), you’ve probably been following the ongoing Washington drama following Michael Isikoff’s scoop that Karl Rove was Matt Cooper’s “double super secret” source. Perhaps if Cooper had added "and no tagsies-backsies," his source could have remained anonymous - I'm pretty sure that it's buried in the controversial National Cooties Act of 1997. Alas, "double super secret" alone just isn't as iron clad as it used to be. . .

I’ve been particularly interested in the White House’s response to the bombshell, which may or may not have any legal implications, but certainly creates political complications. Both yesterday’s and today’s press briefing sessions with Scott McClellan provided some great examples of political kabuki theater. Most of the time, members of the press came up with new and more aggressive ways of asking “what the fuck, Scott?!” and McClellan responding “I’ve been told not to tell you anything.” I acutally feel badly for him – not that I was ever a big fan of his, but I do think that he is the recipient of a disproportionate amount of blog-spawned criticism simply because he become the personification of the White House; it’s much easier to hate a person than an abstract policy.

In addition to McClellan’s repeated evasive responses about not being able to comment on anything that he interpreted as being related to this “ongoing investigation,” there was one defense in particular that he employed that stuck me. Take, for example, this exchange from yesterday:

Q: Scott, I think your barrage today in part because we -- it is now clear that 21 months ago, you were up at this podium saying something that we now know to be demonstratively false. Now, are you concerned that in not setting the record straight today that this could undermine the credibility of the other things you say from the podium?
McCLELLAN: Again, I'm going to be happy to talk about this at the appropriate time. Dana, you all -- you and everybody in this room, or most people in this room, I should say, know me very well and they know the type of person that I am. And I'm confident in our relationship that we have. But I will be glad to talk about this at the appropriate time, and that's once the investigation is complete. I'm not going to get into commenting based on reports or anything of that nature.

McClellan made a very similar statement today:

Q: I'm not talking about the case. Can you just address -- do you feel like there's a [White House] credibility problem?
McCLELLAN: I think you all in this room know me very well. And you know the type of person that I am. You, and many others in this room, have dealt with me for quite some time. The President is a very straightforward and plainspoken person, and I'm someone who believes in dealing in a very straightforward way with you all, as well, and that's what I've worked to do.

In both statements, McClellan resorted to a very personal assurance, and this is something that has struck me as a defining characteristic of the current administration. People of different political stripes hold varying interpretations as to its merit, but I think that we can all stipulate to the fact that personal relationships, and loyalty, are highly prized within the administration. Rice and Rove received sizable promotions in the second term, while Powell and O'Neill were handed a chilly shoulder. I'm certainly not the first to point out these traits of loyalty (if you're a Bush supporter) or nepotism (if you're a Bush opponent), but I am surprised to find McClellan trying to apply this approach to the press. What happened to administration's view that the press is a filter? Now McClellan is trying to use personal friendships with reporters in order to try to get softer questions? Sounds kinda like he wants a filter now.

While it may be debatable as to whether strong personal networks are advantageous within the executive branch (I believe that they certainly aren't, but I concede that everyone may not agree with that position), it would be unambiguously bad if journalists and government officials formed closer bonds. As it stands today, the Washington press corps and the executive branch are already fairly cozy, agreeing to regular "background" briefings by "senior administration officials." And let's not forget those swank social events like the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where this year Laura Bush generated gobs of glowing press reviews. It's essential that a barrier between the press and government reamin. Karl Rove himself said in April of this year that the press is "less liberal than it is oppositional . . . [r]eporters now see their role less as discovering facts and fair-mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on the earth to afflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat." Ari Fliescher more or less echoed that sentiment in his book, which didn't say much else. It's the press corps' job to hold McClellan to task, especially given his fairly long (and unambiguous) history of comments on the Plame affair. This sort of "you'll just have to trust me" response is probably what Rove gave to McClellan, which is exactly what put the press secretary in a tight spot. This kind of explanation may be acceptable within the administation, where personal intergrity is all the rage. But it's not surprising that the press won't let the issue rest; that kind of flimsy response doesn't satisfy the press. They're not your friends, Scott, and Rove probably shouldn't be either.


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