- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

So, if you thought Bill Clinton lying to the grand jury was a serious matter, are you obliged to take the same dim view of the crimes alleged against Scooter Libby? Or if you thought Mr. Clinton’s dissembling needed to be understood in the context of a process that was so deeply unfair to him that it trumped whatever offenses he may have committed, are you obliged to hold open the same possibility in the case of Mr. Libby?

Well, no, actually, I don’t think you are. Not if you are a partisan of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. If politics ever becomes solely a matter of partisanship, then we’re probably in trouble. But any attempt to eliminate the partisanship from politics in favor of neutral and objective principles of judgment, according to which everyone applies standards consistently and therefore avoids giving off so much as a whiff of hypocrisy, is bound to fail. That’s fortunate, because if it somehow succeeds, the result would be disastrous.

While watching the Chicago Fire crush D.C. United in the Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semifinal on television Sunday, I found myself irritated round about the 35th minute, with United down two goals, by what I thought was the unmistakable bias of the announcers in favor of the Fire. Fortunately, a moment later, I came to my senses. My team was losing, the sportscasters were making perfectly sensible remarks about that fact, and I didn’t appreciate them pointing it out. No doubt Fire fans thought the announcers were sagacious. Of course, had their team been two goals behind, the words from the announcers would have rankled them.

This is not a point about the media. (Yes, the mainstream media are vested in the failure of George W. Bush’s presidency; on the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt for Mr. Bush to put on a few successes). It’s about the rooting interest people take. Politics, no less than sports, requires the partisan element — according to which you boo the referee when the call goes against you, whether the ref was correct or not.

Lots of people are currently trying to sort out hypocrisy issues with respect to the Clinton and Libby cases, centered as they both are on perjury and obstruction. The idea is that you don’t want to find yourself flagrantly defying a standard to which you had previously announced your unshakeable commitment.

The main form this inevitably takes is some variation on the theme: “But that’s different!” And since no two situations are ever exactly the same, the difference-mongers always have something to go on.

But that’s where things get interesting, because what is essentially the same about all scandal cases is that they have two aspects: the allegations of the wrongdoing themselves, as well as the circumstances in which the alleged wrongdoing came to light. If the first is a description of bad conduct, then the second is a description of the context for the conduct (which may have the effect of making it seem less onerous) and of the process exposing the context (which may look unfair to the point of being worse than the conduct).

Now, at some point, we do have to sort all this out. But partisanship is important in doing so, because it ensures that both elements, conduct and context, get as full an airing as possible. That happens because if it’s my guy who’s on the hook, I’ll argue context, whereas if it’s your guy, I’ll argue conduct — and in general, vice versa.

Look, it was not a good thing for Christian Gomez to direct a spray of spittle in the direction of Fire defender C.J. Brown, thereby drawing a red card. On the other hand, the tackle Brown put on Gomez inside the penalty box looked to me like an obvious foul that the referee should have called, which would have had the salutary dual effect of giving D.C. a penalty kick and wiping that smirk off Brown’s face — if you see what I mean.

Politics being somewhat more important than soccer — and I realize that this may be my most contentious statement so far in this column — any attempt to strip the matter at hand of partisanship altogether would likely result in insufficient attention paid to one element or the other, conduct or context, based on whichever side happens to be in the more powerful position. Fortunately, we’ve got free speech (which is what you’d have to suppress), and the disadvantaged side will never agree to go quietly. So, we’ve got a system that favors balancing the conduct and the context.

Except, of course, when you decide a guy from your side is not worth defending. Jack Abramoff is not quite drawing the same level of support from Republicans as Mr. Libby. That, too, is telling: Some cases are not close. But there is nothing terribly wrong and something inherently decent in applying different standards when one of your own is in trouble. Just don’t apply for the position of judge or referee.

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