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Works and Days

Scooter Libby by the Numbers

March 7th, 2007 - 2:41 pm

You try to think of the right adjective—Kafkaesque, Orwellian, surreal?—to describe the Libby fiasco. I don’t know Mr. Libby, but met him on two occasions at dinners in Washington DC.

Both times he seemed to me the most widely read and affable in the room; he was also polite and well spoken, which is rare among the powerful in Washington. Despite all the mess, this much is clear.

1. During the lead-up to the war, one Joe Wilson, a sort of DC gadfly and has-been blowhard, was nominated to go to Niger by some in the CIA, most probably on the prompt of his own wife, to investigate reports of sales of yellowcake to Saddam Hussein. His selection is inexplicable, because the very idea of a Joe Wilson, on a government-sanctioned trip, to inquire, in discreet fashion, about sensitive transactions, is itself Orwellian.

2. He comes back, announces loudly and erroneously that he was on a mission chartered under the auspices of the VP—and that there is no evidence that there was any Iraqi interest in raw nuclear materials. This assertion, as Christopher Hitchens and others have written, was probably false.

3. The VP’s office and others are furious that this buffoon is lying about the circumstances of his trip, so they begin doing background on him, and discover the spousal connection and perhaps suspicions that he is staking out a partisan career. Almost immediately all sorts of reporters and government officials gossip about Valerie Plame’s CIA affiliation to explain his inexplicable selection. Her position, it turns out, is not covert—a fact that may or may not have been known at the time.

4. Apparently Richard Armitage is the first to disclose to a reporter the process how Wilson was chosen, in an interview with Robert Novak. No doubt he wanted to illustrate the conflict of interest involved in the Wilson selection, inter alia, to paint Wilson as either a showman or a partisan or both. As the national mood changes, given the absence of WMD caches in Iraq and the growing insurgency, Wilson sees an opening and suddenly becomes a cry-in-the-wilderness hero to the anti-war Left. I met him in this period in the Fox DC greenroom once, and heard him speak later at UC Berkeley at a journalism conference. Both times I came away thinking with friends like these, the Left didn’t need any more enemies. No wonder that Wilson was quickly let go from the Kerry’s 2004 campaign as a “consultant.”

5. A general allegation is made that government officials violated the law for partisan advantage by disclosing the identity of a covert CIA operative. The Left sees traction here in the storyline that the pro-war Republicans are shorting their own beloved CIA, irony given that past CIA whistleblowers who disclosed top-secret information were lionized for it by liberals.

A special prosecutor is appointed. Fitzgerald immediately discovers that (A) Richard Armitage first disclosed Ms. Plame’s identity to Mr. Novak, and (B) there was apparently no crime in doing so. But he continues to ask questions from various reporters and officials about the nature of this feeding-frenzy, much of it caused by Mr. Wilson himself who seized the moment, as they say, by publicizing his own wife’s status, glamour, and anger, doing a book deal, magazine spread, and joining the Kerry campaign.

6. Fitzgerald apparently concludes that he has no proof of wrongdoing concerning the original charter of his special prosecutorship, given that Ms. Plame’s status was not covert. He also feels no need to or cannot prosecute Mr. Armitage or others either for violating federal statutes about CIA confidentiality or lying. His highest-ranking target, Mr. Libby, apparently alone will justify his original mandate, albeit on different charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. After hours of testimony from Mr. Libby, contradictions between his recollections and those of others are established, although it seems there is no common truth. Nearly all those interrogated at some point contradicted someone else.

7. Libby alone is charged. If his defense tactics were culpable, it was largely in the initial suggestion that Libby was a fall-guy. That suggested some sort of conspiracy where there was none. The defense had a right to be angry at Armitage, Ari Fleischer, and others who had talked to reporters about Plame, but none had done so in a conspiratorial fashion, and had simply cut their own deals without orchestration. Libby was culled out because he was the highest-ranking target that might justify the prosecutor’s time and expense, and because he either would not or could not strike some deal in the fashion that others had, formally or informally.

Lessons?

1. We now have a new branch of government—a symbiosis between a special prosecutor and the Washington DC judiciary. Given the available jury pool and justices in DC, together with the high-stakes, high-publicity of a special prosecutorship, any prominent conservative is fair game. An innocent or hung verdict spells financial ruin, a guilty one the destruction of a career.

All this is much like the ancient Athenian notion of ostracism, in which the prominent could be exiled and ruined simply by a populist vote on their high-profile stature that was felt to be a danger to an egalitarian Athenian ethos.

2. The Washington DC press corps and high-ranking officials talk, spin, and network 24/7. Trying to sort out anything among any of them is impossible. These are the grunt soldiers with no rules of engagement in a vast ideological battle between the mainststeam media and conservative administrations.

3. There is no sense of proportion or morality involved. One example: Richard Armitage comes off quite negatively. He knew he was the most culpable given the initial directive of the Special Prosecutor, and yet stayed quiet while the searchlight went on to others. This was especially reprehensible given his prior carefully crafted voice of conscious as a luke-warm supporter of the war.

4. We will never know all the power-plays, ego-trips, and vested reputations in all this. But apparently Fitzgerald had a lot on the line by going after Libby, and was willing to apply to him a standard not applied to others in or out of government. This does not mean necessarily that Libby’s testimony was not inconsistent, only that a degree of scrutiny was applied to it in a manner not done elsewhere.

5. All this reminds me again of wisdom from my late mother, a California superior and appellate court justice. She used to remind me that the most powerful people in government are not judges, not juries, not even legislators or executives—but state and federal attorneys, who act as judge and jury of sorts in selecting whom to prosecute. I say that because in the modern age, an indictment ipso facto can spell financial ruin and irrevocable loss of reputation. Our prosecutors must be above any hint of partisanship or grudge-holding, and must not see their offices as platforms for wide-ranging, Les Miserables obsessions.

Sadly, in this case, Mr. Fitzgerald got his one conviction, but in the process lost his own reputation as well.

The “300″

I haven’t written a formal review of the “300″, since I was asked to write an introduction to the book accompanying the movie, and wouldn’t be a disinterested critic. Below are the reactions I had after seeing the premier Monday night in Hollywood, posted in NRO’s corner.

I took my son and daughter to the showing. They had a great time, especially talking to Frank Miller. I also wrote something about it for the City Journal blog http://www.city-journal.org/html/rev2007-03-07vdh.html

From NRO: Last Night at the 300

I went to the Hollywood Premier of the “300″ last night, and talked a bit with Director Zack Snyder, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, and graphic novelist Frank Miller. There will be lots of controversy about this film-well aside from erroneous allegations that it is pro- or anti-Bush, when the movie has nothing to do with Iraq or contemporary events, at least in the direct sense. (Miller’s graphic novel was written well before the “war against terror” commenced under President Bush).

I wrote an introduction for the accompanying book about the film when Kurt Johnstad came down to Selma to show me a CD advanced unedited version last October, but some additional reflections follow from last night.

There are four key things to remember about the film: it is not intended to be Herodotus Book 7.209-236, but rather is an adaptation from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which itself is an adaptation from secondary work on Thermopylai. Purists should remember that when they see elephants and a rhinoceros or scant mention of the role of those wonderful Thespians who died in greater numbers than the Spartans at Thermopylai.

Second, in an eerie way, the film captures the spirit of Greek fictive arts themselves. Snyder and Johnstad and Miller are Hellenic in this sense: red-figure vase painting especially idealized Greek hoplites through “heroic nudity”. Such iconographic stylization meant sometimes that armor was not included in order to emphasize the male physique.

So too the 300 fight in the film bare-chested. In that sense, their oversized torsos resemble not only comic heroes, but something of the way that Greeks themselves saw their own warriors in pictures. And even the loose adaptation of events reminds me of Greek tragedy, in which an Electra, Iphigeneia or Helen in the hands of a Euripides is portrayed sometimes almost surrealistically, or at least far differently from the main narrative of the Trojan War, followed by the more standard Aeschylus, Sophocles and others.

Third, Snyder, Johnstad, and Miller have created a strange convention of digital backlot and computer animation, reminiscent of the comic book mix of Sin City. That too is sort of like the conventions of Attic tragedy in which myths were presented only through elaborate protocols that came at the expense of realism (three male actors on the stage, masks, dialogue in iambs, with elaborate choral meters, violence off stage, 1000-1600 lines long, etc.).

There is irony here. Oliver Stone’s mega-production Alexander spent tens of millions in an effort to recapture the actual career of Alexander the Great, with top actors like Collin Farrel, Antony Hopkins, and Angelina Joilie. But because this was a realist endeavor, we immediately were bothered by the Transylvanian accent of Olympias, Stone’s predictable brushing aside of facts, along with the distortions, and the inordinate attention given to Alexander’s supposed proclivities. But the “300” dispenses with realism at the very beginning, and thus shoulders no such burdens. If characters sometimes sound black-and-white as cut-out superheroes, it is not because they are badly-scripted Greeks, as was true in Stone’s film, but because they reflect the parameters of the convention of graphic novels, comic books, and surrealistic cinematography. Also I liked the idea that Snyder et al. were more outsiders than Stone, and pulled something off far better with far less resources and connections. The acting proved excellent-again, ironic when the players are not marquee stars.
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Fourth, but what was not conventionalized was the martial spirit of Sparta that comes through the film. Many of the most famous lines in the film come directly either from Herodotus or Plutarch’s Moralia, and they capture well, in the historical sense, the collective Spartan martial ethic, honor, glory, and ancestor reverence (I say that as an admirer of democratic Thebes and its destruction of Sparta’s system of Messenian helotage in 369 BC).

Why-beside the blood-spattering violence and often one-dimensional characterizations-will some critics not like this, despite the above caveats?

Ultimately the film takes a moral stance, Herodotean in nature: there is a difference, an unapologetic difference between free citizens who fight for eleutheria and imperial subjects who give obeisance. We are not left with the usual postmodern quandary ‘who are the good guys’ in a battle in which the lust for violence plagues both sides. In the end, the defending Spartans are better, not perfect, just better than the invading Persians, and that proves good enough in the end. And to suggest that unambiguously these days has perhaps become a revolutionary thing in itself.

No Man A Slave—Outtake #5

Near the end of the novel. The veterans are nearing home in Boiotia, after the campaign to free the helots. They stop at the harbor of Delphi, on the Gulf of Korinth, to send away Melissos, a Macedonian hostage who has served them for a year, as a good faith pledge from his father that the peace between the north and the Boiotians would be kept. His final words, though, surprise the Boiotians who are puzzled at their former servant’s arrogance.

The four gave their ward a final goodbye. But as Melissos walked on board, Ainias called out, “Wait, Makedonian. One last request. It won’t require you to carry our shields any longer. Just tell me a final thing, northerner. What exactly did you learn from your year with our Epaminondas? So hostage boy, give me something that I can tell him on his return.”

Melissos stopped and smiled. On the final walk along the Gulf he had been going over just such questions—and how to answer them when his father King Amyntas at home pressed him for wisdom. He had learned too much in his year with these Thebans. And now he thought he was more than their match. So he turned to Ainias, no longer in the old role of hostage servant, but as a future king of a warrior tribe who was coming of age.

“I figured out many things, Tatikos. Of democracy, of course, that it is the silliest thing— a pass for the dirtiest and loudest to shout down their betters. Why the Thebans risk their lives for such a folly—and for others no less—I don’t know. But we in the north never would. And we must some day convince you of its danger—and how the best men cannot be chained by the worse. So there must have been some gold or a secret shipment of slaves in the bargain for you? I am a boy, true. But still I’m not so dense to believe you marshaled thousands for stupid ideas about freedom for the man-footed helots. Are we really to believe that Kalliphon, Lophis, Proxenos, and Chion and all the rest of your best really died for this notion—and for others no less?”

Ephoros bore this northern faker no ill will: “You are the conniving adult; we the carefree children. I can see that. Yes, Melissos, I will leave a chapter to you alone in my scrolls to follow the freedom of the Messenians and the work of Epaminondas. But I am afraid I will be writing of you when my hair is thin and white. Since you and your tribes up north overturn the work of Epaminondas—to kill, not birth democracy in Hellas.”

Melissos ignored the taunts of Ephoros, and bored on. “But I will also tell my father that we will fight deep like Thebans. We will carry spears longer even than yours. Some day we will even drop our shields. Instead we will use two hands for our heavy pikes. And then we march at an angle as you taught at Leuktra. Why do you carry such heavy armor, since you can hire all the men you need without worrying too much about how many live or die? We would spend far more of our gold on the pikes, not the worthless breastplates or shields of our soldiers. And I know too that it is not Sparta or Athens that hold you Hellenes together. No, it is the men of Boiotia such as Melon, and Pelopidas, and Epaminondas and that Sacred Band. Kill you all, and everything else falls into place.”

Then Melissos began to laugh as he put his hands on his hips in front of the crewmen as the boat left the pier. “ So should I come back, I will honor you all even as I must end you all. But I will swear a great oath that I will never touch your holy Messenians who will remain free even if all of you will not. I will give you that much for my year of servitude.”

Then as his voiced was carried off by the wind, he yelled a last time, “Oh, and you will be stung by me not as your silly slang Melissos the “honeybee,” but by my true royal name, Philippos, the lover of horses, of the Royal House of Pella, son of Amyntas and the royal Eurydice.”

With that the boy was gone, and was not seen in the south again for thirty seasons—until Hismenias, Historis and Neander and the men of Thespiai would fall before him and his own son Alexander at Chaironeia, not more than a day’s walk from where they all now stood.

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