Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2005 / 29 Tishrei, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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And there it wasn't

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | It was a lot like the old days, meaning the Clinton Era, in newsrooms across the country Friday morning. Everybody was waiting around to see who would be indicted after a couple of years of rumors and what seemed another never-ending investigation.

This time the indictee turned out to be I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice-president's chief of staff. He was charged with (a) making false statements to the FBI, (b) committing perjury in his testimony before a grand jury, and (c) obstructing justice.

Sound familiar? I had to check the calendar to make sure it wasn't still 1998, the Year of Monica. Or maybe 1974, the Year of Watergate. Talk about Deja Vu all over again: There was Lanny Davis, one of Bill Clinton's various mouthpieces, still commenting on television. I half-expected John Dean to show up next. As in a succession of History's oldies-but-baddies.

From all of which, apparently, our politicos, or at least their aides, seem to learn nothing. The great lesson of history, as many a college history professor has quipped, is that we learn nothing from history.

Even more interesting than Scooter Libby's problems, at least to those of us lucky enough not to be Scooter Libby just now, is what the man wasn't indicted for: violating the law that makes it a crime to reveal the identity of an American spy. Much as some partisans were hoping for an indictment on those grounds, there it wasn't.

But wasn't that the crime — exposing a CIA undercover operative — that was supposed to be the focus of this whole probe? The way a land deal in North Arkansas was supposed to be the focus of the investigation into Bill Clinton's conduct? And the way a third-rate burglary was the basis of what became the administration-shattering, president-resigning earthquake called Watergate?

In both those dramas, and for the moment in this one, the original suspicions weren't borne out. Instead, it was what the players said in the course of the investigation that got them in trouble.

So what's the moral of this same old story in which only the cast of characters seems to change while the basic plot remains the same? The moral, at least for public officials, should be clear: Tell the truth. And the truth will keep you free.

It's not the original scandal, embarrassing as it is, that trips up our elite but what they say about it afterward — especially under oath.

There is a hero in this familiar morality play now slightly revised and re-issued for another run. He's the prosecutor in this case, Patrick Fitzgerald, who has conducted the investigation with a probity and circumspection that puts him head, shoulders and torso above at least a couple of his predecessors in this challenging role: Kenneth Starr of the Clinton Era and Lawrence Walsh, scourge of the Reagan administration.

Ken Starr's staff was prone to more leaks than a rusty old washtub, and Lawrence Walsh let his political passions carry him away. In contrast, Mr. Fitzgerald has run a leak-proof investigation for some two years — no mean feat — and his public comments, when at last he was free to make them, have been firm, clear and yet consistently within proper restraints.

Mr. Fitzgerald has not politicized this investigation in any way, much as those with a political axe to grind might have hoped he would. This year it's not just the White Sox who have given Chicago new reason to be proud, but the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

For years now, constitutional philosophers have been divided over the best way to investigate high-ranking members of the executive branch. Should an independent prosecutor be appointed to do the job, thus avoiding the danger inherent in trusting an administration to investigate itself? Or should the job be left to a special prosecutor reporting to the attorney general, in order to avoid the danger of a runaway prosecutor?

Patrick Fitzgerald's conduct of this case has made that interesting philosophical argument moot. He reports to the Justice Department, yet no one can seriously doubt the independence he has demonstrated in this case.

Once again personnel turns out to be policy: Choose the right prosecutor and, whether special or independent, he will exercise his duty with admirable vigor and prudent self-restraint. There's no way any statute could guarantee such a result; it takes a real live, thinking person to exercise that indefinable but recognizable quality called good judgment. Thank you, Mr. Fitzgerald, for restoring a measure of the country's much abused faith in the law.

As for that gnashing of teeth you can almost hear behind the press conferences and general hubbub in the wake of this indictment, it came from a familiar source: all those Bush-bashers who had so looked forward to seeing the president's political guru, Karl Rove, frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.

Mr. Rove seems to have dodged the bullet, at least for now. Which means there's also no question about where that immense sigh of relief you also heard was coming from: Mr. Rove and his friend-in-chief.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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