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Breeding ground for a new cynicism?

IF Samuel Beckett had glossed “Alice in Wonderland,” the result might have been something like the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

On any given day, it’s possible to read the courtroom drama as either farce or tragedy, though those who care about the proceedings’ implications for the Washington press corps probably will incline toward the latter.

Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury about whether he told reporters that Valerie Plame, the wife of a prominent Iraq war critic, was a CIA agent. Libby’s boss was obsessed with Plame’s husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was sent by the CIA to determine whether Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from the West African country of Niger. Wilson had gone public with charges that President George W. Bush had distorted his findings to justify attacking Iraq, and Cheney wanted the diplomat discredited. Libby and other administration officials attempted to do that by planting anonymously sourced stories about Wilson with journalists they believed would be receptive.

In testimony this week, FBI agent Deborah S. Bond said that Libby had denied telling either former New York Times reporter Judith Miller or then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer that Plame worked for the CIA. Both Miller and Fleischer have testified that Libby told them who Plame was. Bond also testified that Libby had concealed at least one meeting he had with Miller, as well as a conversation with then-Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, and that he had told investigators he first learned of Plame’s identity from NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert.

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Russert, who also hosts the long-running Sunday chat show “Meet the Press,” denies this and is expected to be the prosecution’s last witness, when the trial resumes next week.

Libby’s notes reveal that, in fact, he was told of Plame’s connection to the CIA by Cheney himself and that their conversation occurred a full month before the alleged exchange with Russert. For their part, Libby and his attorneys insist that he simply was a busy man with a poor memory, and, if he had access to his notes when he was interviewed by the FBI agents, he would not have misled them.

Now that’s interesting.

Cheney doesn’t really strike one as a particularly tolerant boss, but let’s assume -- as Libby’s right to a presumption of innocence demands that we do -- that the vice president was so fond of his chief of staff that he didn’t mind his occasional lapses of memory.

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Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s wonder just how often Libby confused things Cheney told him with things reporters told him. Given the vice president’s extraordinary influence over administration policy, if it happened with any frequency, it might explain a great deal about what’s happened over the last six years.

Maybe we all should be grateful that Libby was talking to the relatively harmless Russert, whose primary fault seems to be a career-enhancing excess of affability.

Where might we be if Libby had confused Cheney’s instructions with those of, say, Pat Buchanan or Ann Coulter or, God help us, Bill Kristol?

Lucky break there.

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If there was a moment in this week that summed up the trial’s corrosive absurdity, it was Thursday, when Judge Reggie M. Walton ruled that the prosecution could play a video tape of a White House news conference in which Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that Libby had not leaked Plame’s name. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald told the court that McClellan’s public assertion of Libby’s innocence “rebuts the idea that Mr. Libby was thrown under the White House bus. The White House went out to clear him.”

In their opening statement, Libby’s lawyers claimed that the administration threw their client to the prosecutorial wolves to distract attention from Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist, who also talked to reporters about Plame. (Who knows, after the midterms, Cheney might have been able to push the decision the other way.) The Economist got this matter about right when it wrote this week: “The purpose of the defense tactics is not entirely clear. Mr. Rove’s guilt would not prove Mr. Libby’s innocence. Maybe everyone is guilty -- including the vice president.”

Transparent as this defense gambit may be, it did set up the opportunity for Walton’s preposterous ruling that jurors might see McClellan declare Libby’s blamelessness on video but would have to have the reporters’ questions to which he replied read to them by one of Fitzgerald’s assistants. As the New York Times reported, “The judge agreed with Libby’s lawyers that the tone of the reporters was cynical and negative.”

Actually, at this stage, it might have been bracing to remind people that there are Washington reporters who routinely express a healthy skepticism toward the administration’s line, reporters who are cynical about something other than the public’s right to news that isn’t refracted through the distorting prism of mutual self-interest that binds too many star journalists to their “sources.”

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Every day, in courtrooms across this country, judges send cases to juries after routinely instructing them that they must weigh the answers to the questions they’ve heard during the course of the trial and not the queries that elicited them. A question is not evidence, jurors are told. Its only use is to give meaning to the answer. Why Walton felt that caution wasn’t sufficient here is anybody’s guess. It’s just one more in a series of facts surrounding this squalid melodrama that suggest a Capitol, a court, an administration and a Washington press corps that aren’t really playing by what the rest of us think of as the rules.

If that impression takes hold in the country, you won’t be able to lift the public cynicism with a skip loader and -- no matter what happens to good old Scooter and his cronies with press credentials -- everybody will come out of this trial a loser.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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