Friday, March 9, 2007

In a perfect world — or even a decent world — Scooter Libby would never have been accused and entrapped to lie. Or if he had, a judge would have dismissed the proceedings and sent Patrick Fitzgerald, the rogue prosecutor, back to his traps in Chicago.

But we live in Washington, where destroying lives, as the late Vince Foster famously said, is sometimes a partisan sport.

A bold president could turn the malicious prosecution of Mr. Libby into a Democratic debacle, appealing successfully to the American spirit of fair play. Even the jurors say they had to put clothespins on their noses to return guilty verdicts. One of them, in an incredible turn, urges a pardon. But Republican presidents, alas, are rarely forged in bold molds. They’re taught that bland is better than bold, to be nice and count on the enemy to drop an occasional crumb. “Vote Republican, we’re not as bad as you think.” Sometimes, when the Democrats really stink, usually between rare baths at the polls, the slogan works.

The reluctance to strike hard and fast always invites more grief. George W. Bush was offended by the political trial of Scooter Libby but he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to do anything about it, perhaps in the forlorn hope that maybe pretty soon everyone will forget about it. “I’m pretty much going to stay out of it until the course — the case has finally run its final — the course it’s going to take,” he told an interviewer before taking off for Latin America.

Washington has been paying close attention to the Libby trial because reporters were involved and when the media is involved the media will smother it with rapt attention. The president would have to explain a pardon to the voters in Peoria and East Gondola, but once Peoria and East Gondola learn how Mr. Libby was convicted of lying to a grand jury and to the FBI (always wrong) about a crime that was never committed they would applaud settling the account. The real crimes, if only against decency, were the malicious prosecution by Patrick Fitzgerald and by the judges who let him get away with it. These were not so much crimes of partisanship as crimes of passion to protect the dead hand of government. Government functionaries, whether judges, government lawyers, congressmen or even presidents, never readily admit errors or mistakes. Better to leave an innocent man to languish in a prison cell than to embarrass the government rogue or bureaucratic incompetent who wrongly put him there.

When a president says he wants to let the legal process run its course it sounds reasonable, moderate and ever so high-minded, but the president surely knows already whether he will pardon Scooter Libby. If he knows that he will pardon him later, as he very likely will just before he retires to Prairie Chapel Ranch, why wait until Mr. Libby exhausts his family, the last of his family’s savings and probably the last of his health?

The pols, always looking for cover to do nothing, naturally caution the president against doing anything. “It’s probably too early for the White House to reach a determination,” one former congressman tells The Washington Post. “[Mr. Libby] is certainly entitled to take this into the appeals process.” Well, duh.

Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican whip in the Senate, thinks it’s a “terrible miscarriage of justice and abuse of prosecutorial power,” but he, too, counsels sloth and procrastination: “It’s too early to talk about pardons.” He doesn’t say why.

Mr. Libby himself no doubt understands that the quality of mercy is always strained through the filter of partisan advantage, that only suckers do the right thing because it’s the right thing. Even a sometime straight shooter like Dick Armey, once the Republican leader in the House, blinks. “If [the president] does pardon Scooter Libby,” he says, “it will be construed, correctly or not, as an admission that there’s a culpability that goes beyond the foolishness of an individual … that Scooter took a bullet for the team.”

Or the president could show the public another way of looking at it. A malicious prosecutor, desperate to justify blowing millions of dollars in pursuit of a crime that was never committed, set up a convenient fall guy. A pardon, now, would right a grievous government wrong.

Pruden on Politics runs Tuesday and Friday.

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