I've taken a day to step back and digest the Libby thing, and I still can't find a way to avoid near-total chagrin about how the whole saga has played out and now finally been crowned. Is it the worst of both worlds? I might just think so.
This is not just because the obliteration of Libby's prison sentence plays right into the hands of Democrats, although of course that's hardly a chit in Bush's favor. It 'plays into the hands' of anyone who's nursed a steady fear and loathing of the tendency of this administration to do whatever it deems right whenever it has the power to do so, and usually with an instantaneous feel. So scalding jets of steam are shooting out of Andrew Sullivan's ears and both his nostrils today [no point in a specific link: just click and start scrolling] because the gooey hot seal of arbitrary fiat has been, it would seem, stamped upon a dossier full of imperial whims gone wrong, the fat is in the fire, the writing on the wall, fate sealed, judgment rendered, stone carved.
And, well, isn't it? The point of course is hardly that the President ought to have done, or even paid attention to, anything that Andrew said about this case. But Andrew knows as well as I and a lot of other people do that this isn't about one irate blogger but about a very large group of voting Americans with varying political allegiances who are thrashing in frustration at the Johnny-one-note approach to power and interest taken by this administration. Bush had every legal ability (or 'right,' if you like) to throw out everything they hung around Libby's neck. From a Presidential standpoint he has done nothing wrong, stepped outside no bound, violated no applicable standard of justice. And indeed, were I the judge, I would have found 30 months quite unnecessarily harsh a punishment. But I was not the judge. The judge was. And the jury was the jury. And the appellate judge was the appellate judge, too. And there is no possible ground of attack or criticism toward what Fitzgerald, who can well be attacked for the way he ran his case, said today:
We fully recognize that the Constitution provides that commutation decisions are a matter of presidential prerogative and we do not comment on the exercise of that prerogative. We comment only on the statement in which the President termed the sentence imposed by the judge as "excessive." The sentence in this case was imposed pursuant to the laws governing sentencings which occur every day throughout this country. In this case, an experienced federal judge considered extensive argument from the parties and then imposed a sentence consistent with the applicable laws. It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals. That principle guided the judge during both the trial and the sentencing.
But that, in a way, isn't quite the point. The proper process of sentencing resulted in what I have no trouble at all calling a far too serious imprisonment penalty. And the proper process of Presidential pardon resulted in what I must refer to as a giant pain in the ass for the Republican party, a massive confirmation of every rude caricature of the President ever drawn, and a still shocking tonedeafness to the nuance with which power must be exercised when one finds oneself in seriously political circumstances. Libby was not some private citizen who got screwed. He was a public citizen who got entangled in a godawful mess equal parts palace intrigue and careerist ego trip, and he was entangled in it because that was his job, to get entangled so his boss wouldn't be, and to act as if his sentence ought to be treated the same way that the sentence given a perjuring cable guy should be treated is a major mistake at a time when it's fairly important to not make mistakes of any size.
For Libby's defenders who think he was wholly innocent, the leftover blots and fees ought to inspire outrage. But no one can think he was wholly innocent, only that the way in which his culpable act appeared was cheap and sort of rigged. Yet once you lie on the stand, you set the wheels of justice a-spinnin' -- as everyone knows and no one can dispute. So what would have happened had Bush reduced the jail time to 6 months? Would Libby's supporters have gone into fits? Would Bush's foes have foamed at the mouth? I suspect the answer to both these questions is no -- or at least that the fits would have been mild and halfhearted, and the foam reduced to a perfunctory spittle.
But no. With this administration, where even the right thing can be done wrong, it's never that easy. The whole Libby escapade is an undying testament to the way that bureaucratic infighting and politics made personal turns power into spectacle, truth into technique, and justice into a blunt instrument. No one, it seems to me, has gotten away clean, and as representative of the pettiness and brutality of Washington politics as that may be, it's a verdict that cankers an already sunken public heart.