WHITE House spokesmen are not generally considered to be sympathetic figures although it is generally agreed that their job is tough.
First of all, they have to be in daily and, in these days of 24/7 communications, virtually constant contact with another form of generally unsympathetic human life, journalists, including even columnists. (Or, to bend the wonderfully flexible English language - calumnists.)
Nonetheless, President Bush and his merry band seemed to have claimed the soul of a former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, according to a piece of his upcoming book which his publisher, Public-Affairs, has let out as a teaser.
Now, no one with half a brain believed that Mr. Bush was unaware of what was going on as Vice President Dick Cheney, his chief political counselor Karl Rove, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, subsequently convicted on four felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, scurried around outing and sliming CIA agent Valerie Plame in retribution for a New York Times article written by her husband, retired U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
There is an image of Mr. Bush that he himself works on by saying folksy, sometimes stupid, things in public and spending time at his ranch clearing brush that he is not an awfully sophisticated fellow and that he would just as soon go to bed early up in that White House while the sharp-teethed mice down there in the offices chewed people and countries up, unbeknownst to him.
There is also, in general, a tendency among people trying to make sense of the actions of presidents - including diplomats such as I was - to take the position that the leader of a country is basically benign: It is those depraved politicians around him who do all these things that, if only he knew about them, he would put a stop to.
I remember going in to see Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the world's biggest thieves, to tell him that he and his cohorts should stop stealing all of Zaire's national mining company's revenues. Mr. Mobutu tried out on me the classic, "Yes, I have heard they are doing that and now that you have confirmed it I am going to put a stop to it."
I think our tendency to want to believe that the head of state - including of our country - is virtuous in some kind of remnant of the days of divine-right kings. Or maybe it is just understandable reluctance to acknowledge that the person with the greatest amount of power in our country is dishonest, with all of the implications for our own present and future well-being.
Anyway, apparently placing the cat clearly among the pigeons in the Plame case, Mr. McClellan apparently will say in his book that Mr. Bush knew quite well what his staff was doing to Ms. Plame. Given the power structure of the White House, he almost certainly approved what they were doing, perhaps even in advance. This, in spite of what he said when the story broke, that he wanted to know the truth and that he would fire whoever was responsible. (Could he have been thinking of resigning?)
What we are looking at here is the White House - the President - using the power and influence of the state to try to crush an individual for having dared put on the public record information that undercut the impression of wisdom of an important public action - in this case, taking the United States to war with Iraq.
What Mr. Wilson had done was say that one of the alleged bricks in the foundation of what turned out to be Mr. Bush's house-of-straw, a claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa, was not true. Mr. Bush had in the meantime put that nonfact in the 2003 State of the Union address to Congress and the nation.
It is easy to understand why Mr. Bush and his associates didn't want anyone pulling at a thread of the shoddy fabric of his case for the war. What is inexcusable is that he was prepared to see a CIA agent crushed as revenge for what her husband had done.
It is close to unimaginable that anyone in 2003, when this started, would think it was acceptable to destroy someone's career for something that his or her spouse had done. Mr. Wilson, as something of a minor political figure, was fair game; his wife, an 18-year career CIA agent, was definitely not, by the rules of our times.
And the administration did try to crush her. Her book, called Fair Game after what White House counselor Karl Rove reportedly told a television host she was, spells it out in painful detail.
One has to have worked for the U.S. government to understand what it means to a civil servant to be under attack by the White House. A public employee is taught from the inception that the American people have elected the president as the nation's leader and that what he - and, by extension, his senior staff - wants is what one is supposed to do, not without question but certainly within bounds of legality.
To have these people on the attack against one, out to wipe you out, as they were with Ms. Plame, is to bear a terrible, painful burden.
For a CIA agent, someone trained to put his or her life on the line for the United States carrying out the policies of the president, what happened to Ms. Plame had to have been close to more than she could bear. In 2003 she was a 40-year-old mother of two-year-old twins, performing in demanding positions in a hard, competitive career.
Mr. Bush and his people did virtually wipe her out. The truth of Mr. McClellan's claim now needs to be pursued actively by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald as well as the media.
To turn the President, with the overwhelming power of the state at his command, loose on vulnerable members of the population with impunity is simply not acceptable in a democracy with a constitution and functioning courts.
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