October 23, 2005

Legal Action: It's Faaantastic!

Gelf recommends some background reading to get up to speed on Washington scandals.

Aaron Zamost

While many turn to Dan Brown for insight into political events (including folks at Fox News), Gelf turns to real literature first. Every week or so, Aaron Zamost will present readers with two books relevant to current events: one for people who enjoy reading Tom Robbins—and another for those who like Tony Robbins.

Oh, we still read schlock—but we read it second.


With Washington drowning in political scandals, it's possible that enough people will be indicted to field an entire basketball team. And with NBA players now being forced to dress like politicians (Inside Hoops), maybe it won't be so peculiar to see Tom DeLay roll into his arraignment draped in bling and a throwback jersey.

What would a starting lineup for the Washington Criminals look like?

Tom DeLay: point guard, University of Houston. Short, scrappy, aggressive with the ball, passes legislation like Steve Nash, twists arms like Bruce Bowen. DeLay was the House majority leader until he was indicted in late September for conspiring to violate Texas campaign finance laws and money laundering. (Washington Post)

Bill Frist: guard, Princeton University. Federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating Senator Frist's June fire-sale of HCA stock—during a time in which company insiders also sold millions of shares—only two weeks before a disappointing earnings report sent the stock price plummeting. (USA Today) When Rudy Tomjanovich lay unconscious on the court after Kermit Washington punched him in the face during an NBA game, Frist pronounced that Tomjanovich was "not in a persistent vegetative state."

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby: forward, Yale University. It is becoming clear that Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, is the focal point of the investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, and, with Rove, is probably the most likely to be indicted by the grand jury. Libby's letter to New York Times reporter Judy Miller is the worst poetry written by a shooting forward since Duke star J.J. Redick shared his verse with Sports Illustrated. (Gelf)

Karl Rove: power forward, Olympus High School (Rove never graduated from college). Built like Oliver Miller, Rove plays like Charles Oakley, who once decked then-Clipper Jeff McInnis during a pregame shoot-around in a dispute over a woman. As with Libby, a grand jury is investigating whether Rove's conversations with two reporters led to the leaking of Plame's identity. Think of sucker-punched McInnis as Plame's husband, U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson.

Jack Abramoff: center, Brandeis University. Political lobbyist, former high-school weightlifting champ who once squatted 540 pounds (Wikipedia), crashes the boards, creates opportunities, tremendous upside. Abramoff is an extremely versatile Washington player: (1) He's been indicted for fraud and conspiracy in connection with allegations that he falsified loan applications and counterfeited a wire-transfer notice in a deal to purchase casino boats in Florida (CNN); and (2) the House Ethics Committee is investigating claims that Abramoff illegally traded gifts and campaign contributions for political favors. (Wikipedia) Abramoff is built to play center: He has ties to everyone, including DeLay, Rove, and the Bush administration.

Say what you will about DeLay's, Frist's, and Abramoff's troubles, but they are merely bear-on-a-tricycle sideshows to the real Washington circus: Rove and Libby's Plamegate. The story has proceeded gradually ever since July, when Rove was first revealed as Time reporter Matthew Cooper's double super-secret source. The disconnect between left/right analyses of the case is so severe—you say "treason," I say "criminalization of politics"—that it's difficult to know what this investigation is really about anymore. Pat Buchanan summarized this best when he said, "Though this case may be narrowly about whether Libby or Rove lied to investigators or the grand jury, it could also become about whether we were lied into a war."

Those are two completely different circumstances. Was this a conspiracy to manufacture evidence and deceive both Congress and the American public into authorizing an unjustifiable war? Or was it simply an incident of character assassination that just went a little too far? The proper boundaries of Fitzgerald's authority depend entirely on whether he is investigating the former or latter possibility. Without an explanation available, everyone is getting way ahead of themselves: Conservatives, by claiming this is merely politics as usual; and liberals, by christening the situation "Fitzmas" and screaming for impeachment.

For all we know, the Plame Affair will be one giant pump fake. Wake me up when it turns into a scandal to rival the following:

All the President's Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

No one really thought Watergate was a big deal in June 1972, when five men were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. But dear lord: One year later all hell had broken loose, and 26 months after the break-in, when President Nixon resigned, you could have filled out your NCAA brackets with the list of implicated co-conspirators. (For those of you scoring at home, Plame's name was leaked 27 months ago.)

And that's what's so great—and so difficult—about All the President's Men. There is so much information to digest that you really have to be in the mood to be confused out of your mind. Thankfully, Woodward and Bernstein have included a lengthy guide to the cast of characters, for quick answers to questions like, "Who was that guy again?" and, "What the heck is a deputy assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs?"

It's hard to separate the book from the movie—the famous quote, "Follow the money," doesn't appear in the book at all, and Woodward has insisted that Deep Throat never uttered these words in real life—but the book is incredibly comprehensive, in the way an edited two-hour movie could never be. It is written with the hard clarity of front-page news, far from the florid, overwritten baloney in Woodward's more recent Bush at War and The Secret Man. If you squint, All the President's Men really is just a grown-up installment in the Hardy Boys series, and its exactness becomes exciting, if you have the stomach for tedious detail.

Watergate was the beginning of a prosecutorial hitting streak for two-term presidents: The last four have been dogged by federal investigations in their second term. Someone should have handed this book to Rove, Libby, and the rest in June 2003. Maybe it would have reminded them that no one gets away with this stuff anymore.

Absolute Power, by David Baldacci

There have been plenty of political debacles involving sex—oral (Clinton), gay (Jim West), and extramarital (Gary Hart)—and it's possible that Abramoff's affair involves murder (Washington Post), but wouldn't it be cool if we had a Washington scandal that is comprised of both? Behold, David Baldacci's Absolute Power: a story of politics, corruption, sex, love, and a scandal that begins with a late night tryst between the President and his paramour and ends with muuuuuuuuurder.

Absolute Power isn't terrible. Baldacci's conspiracies are never as detailed or realistic as those in the novels of fellow conspiracy theorist John Le Carré, but that's a good thing; Carré's most exciting passages usually involve characters yelling something like, "Quick—to the file room!" Absolute Power hits the happy political/crime thriller medium: Baldacci doesn't beat you over the head with technical/bureaucratic nonsense (see Le Carré, Tom Clancy), his villains aren't insanely unconvincing (James Patterson), and it isn't 400 pages longer than it needs to be (Clancy again). And while the novel reads like typical bestseller stuff ("That was their job, his job. Protect the goddamned President"), it's still somewhat better than the usual crap—even though Baldacci, like all Barnes-&-Noble-Recommended authors, can't resist hamming it up with poor-verb-choice sex scenes. (My personal favorite: "She lay placidly back to accept him.")

But Absolute Power is most relevant today as a cautionary tale for high-profile Washington politicians trying to get themselves out of a jam. Please, don't look for guidance from characters in this novel. For example:

PROBLEM: You're the President. Your senior adviser has been subpoenaed by a grand jury.
Do: Discuss with legal counsel the proper course of action.
Don't: Strangle your mistress and try to stab her with a letter opener.

PROBLEM: You're the White House Chief of Staff. The Attorney General notifies you that the Justice Department, at the request of the CIA, has opened an investigation that involves the administration.
Do: Inform the White House staff that it must "preserve all materials" relevant to the investigation.
Don't: Get the President drunk and have sex with him while he's passed out.

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Article by Aaron Zamost

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