Bring Me the Head of Karl Rove

Until this week Karl Rove has had both a political and legal defense strategy. The former has now definitively crashed. Only the legal details remain an open question, and they are being zealously probed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. We now know for sure what we have long suspected. Two years ago exactly, Rove got on the White House phones and, speaking to at least one if not many more national reporters, he broke the cover of a CIA agent in a calculated move to discredit former ambassador Joe Wilson. Wilson’s crime was to publicly question the manipulation of intelligence on Iraq by the same White House.

Shortly after Wilson wrote a piece in The New York Times debunking administration claims that Iraq was purchasing enriched uranium from Niger, Rove revealed to Time magazine’s Matt Cooper that Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent and that she was behind her husband’s trip to Africa.

It seems like Clintonian déjà vu all over again. Rove’s defense this week is that he didn’t break a 1982 law protecting covert agents because he didn’t actually use the name of Wilson’s wife. Guess it all depends on what you mean by “name” — Valerie Plame or Mrs. Wilson?

It will be up to prosecutor Fitzgerald to sort out this nuance — a little wrinkle that may or may not have some jail time attached to it (we can certainly hope it does). But Rove’s political crime is self-evident. None of us should be the least surprised that a political pro would spread political dirt about his opponents. This is what skilled consultants are hired to do. Rove, however, was acting as White House deputy chief of staff and was on the public pad. For someone in that post of authority to burn a CIA agent to stifle a war critic should outrage everybody.

It’s certainly got the press worked up. All this week the White House press corps — including even Fox News’ Carl Cameron — has been taking sustained batting practice with Bush mouthpiece Scott McClellan’s balls. They whacked him with a whopping 35 questions on Karl Rove in just 32 minutes at Monday’s press briefing. And they kept swinging for the fences on Tuesday.

Rove and McClellan (and Bush) now have multiple problems with the media. Back in 2003 McClellan told the press he had “spoken with Karl Rove” and that it was “simply not true” and “totally ridiculous” that Rove had played any role in disclosing Valerie Plame’s identity.

Both McClellan and Bush have forthrightly said that anyone who leaked Plame’s identity would and should be fired. A literal-minded American press corps tends to take that sort of statement in black-and-white terms and now wants to know exactly when Rove will be pink-slipped.

The other dilemma facing the White House is that last week’s jailing of The New York Times’ Judith Miller hardly went unnoticed by her colleagues, who were almost universally outraged (except, of course, for the L.A. Times’ Michael Kinsley, who laughed it all off as no more than an opportunity to write a silly column defending her imprisonment). The traditions and protocols of the American media are such that displays of organized, formal solidarity with another reporter are as rare as snow in San Diego. But you can be sure that a lot of reporters, a lot of White House reporters, are burning with indignation that Miller was sent behind bars to protect a known sleazebag like Rove.

So, media payback is here, and it looks like it’s gonna be a bitch. I would be very surprised if there’s going to be any letup on the Rove story until it comes to some crashing conclusion. And if there is, the only fallback story on the national agenda is the continuing disaster in Iraq.

If Rove resigns or gets fired — the former much more likely than the latter — it will make little difference in our national politics. His services to Bush will still be readily available; indeed, as a private citizen he will be subject to even less public scrutiny. The drama will be heightened if Rove is actually indicted or convicted of a crime. But only the drama. Karl Rove, Ambassador Wilson and Valerie Plame do not figure very much, if at all, into the daily lives and dinner-table conversation of most Americans whose families continue to be challenged by the Big Three Unresolved Issues that neither party has much to say about: jobs, education and health care.

The ongoing self-destruction of the Bush administration means next to nothing about a significant change in our lives so long as the Democrats continue their ideas-free exile in the political desert — a trek that for all we know may already have crossed the historical fail-safe point. Growing disgust with George W. Bush, his minions and his policies adds up to very little unless there is an attractive alternative and opponent willing to cash it in. In the meantime, we will have to settle for some good old-fashioned schadenfreude.

All in all, it’s shaping up to be a long, hot summer for the Bush White House. Quick, somebody, get some more blankets to pile on!

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