Michael Barone, in the WSJ, reflects on the consequences of the habitual misuse of power of the press to delegitimize elected administrations.
It is hard in retrospect to understand why the left put so much psychic energy into the notion that Mr. Rove would be indicted. He certainly was an important target. No one in American history has been as powerful an aide to a president, both on politics and on public policy, as Karl Rove. Only Robert Kennedy in his brother’s administration and Hamilton Jordan in Jimmy Carter’s come close, and neither was as involved in electoral politics as Mr. Rove has been.
Still, it was clear early on that the likelihood that Mr. Rove violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act was near zero. Under the law, the agent whose name was disclosed would have had to have served overseas within the preceding five years (Valerie Plame, according to her husband’s book, had been stationed in the U.S. since 1997), and Mr. Rove would have had to know that she was undercover (not very likely). The left enjoyed raising an issue on which, for once, it could charge that a Republican administration had undermined national security. But that rang hollow when the left gleefully seized on the New York Times’ disclosure of NSA surveillance of phone calls from suspected al Qaeda operatives abroad to persons in the U.S.
In all this a key role was played by the press. Cries went up early for the appointment of a special prosecutor: Patrick Fitzgerald would be another Archibald Cox or Leon Jaworski. Eager to bring down another Republican administration, the editorialists of the New York Times evidently failed to realize that the case could not be pursued without asking reporters to reveal the names of sources who had been promised confidentiality. America’s newsrooms are populated largely by liberals who regard the Vietnam and Watergate stories as the great achievements of their profession. The peak of their ambition is to achieve the fame and wealth of great reporters like David Halberstam and Bob Woodward. But this time it was not Republican administration officials who went to prison. It was Judith Miller, then of the New York Times itself.
Interestingly, Bob Woodward himself contradicted Mr. Fitzgerald’s statement, made the day that he announced the one indictment he has obtained, of former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby, that Mr. Libby was the first to disclose Ms. Plame’s name to a reporter. The press reaction was to turn on Mr. Woodward, who has been covering this administration as a new story rather than as a reprise of Vietnam and Watergate.
Historians may regard it as a curious thing that the left and the press have been so determined to fit current events into templates based on events that occurred 30 to 40 years ago. The people who effectively framed the issues raised by Vietnam and Watergate did something like the opposite; they insisted that Vietnam was not a reprise of World War II or Korea and that Watergate was something different from the operations J. Edgar Hoover conducted for Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy. Journalists in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s tended to believe they had a duty to buttress Americans’ faith in their leaders and their government. Journalists since Vietnam and Watergate have tended to believe that they have a duty to undermine such faith, especially when the wrong party is in office.
That belief has its perils for journalism, as the Fitzgerald investigation has shown. The peril that the press may find itself in the hot seat, but even more the peril that it will get the story wrong. The visible slavering over the prospect of a Rove indictment is just another item in the list of reasons why the credibility of the “mainstream media” has been plunging. There’s also a peril for the political left. Vietnam and Watergate were arguably triumphs for honest reporting. But they were also defeats for America–and for millions of freedom-loving people in the world. They ushered in an era when the political opposition and much of the press have sought not just to defeat administrations but to delegitimize them. The pursuit of Karl Rove by the left and the press has been just the latest episode in the attempted criminalization of political differences. Is there any hope that it might turn out to be the last?