Under the harsh but savvy tutelage of Karl Rove, Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated their adherence to a venerable cliché: In politics, as in sports and warfare, the best defense is always a good offense—and the more offensive, the better. It’s an effective strategy, as John Kerry and many other hapless victims have learned, and at this point also a highly predictable one.
Circled in a bristling perimeter around the White House, the friends and allies of Mr. Rove can soon be expected to fire their rhetorical mortars at Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the White House exposure of C.I.A. operative Valerie Wilson. Indeed, the preparations for that assault began months ago in the editorial columns of The Wall Street Journal, which has tarred Mr. Fitzgerald as a “loose cannon” and an “unguided missile.”
Evidently Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, will lead the next foray against the special prosecutor. This week the Senator’s press office announced his plan to hold hearings on the Fitzgerald probe. That means interfering with an “ongoing investigation,” as the White House press secretary might say, but such considerations won’t deter the highly partisan Kansan.
Of course, it was Mr. Rove’s aggressively partisan style that first sparked the scandal now threatening to ruin him, back when he and other Bush administration officials “outed” Ms. Wilson in an attempt to discredit her dissenting husband during the summer of 2003. Had they not decided to leak classified information for partisan purposes, there would be no grand jury pondering indictments today.
Such ironies won’t discourage the Rove Republicans from pursuing the scorched-earth strategy that has served them so well, however. Nor will those politicians and pundits pause to consider how odd their complaints about an overreaching special prosecutor will sound, emanating from once-fervent supporters of former independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his Whitewater legal jihad.
From their perspective, it’s all part of the same cynical game. If Mr. Starr was subject to sharp criticism, then Mr. Fitzgerald should be a legitimate target, too. They won’t remember how they once decried Mr. Starr’s critics for “obstructing justice.”
Defenders of the Bush White House have every right to whine about the Fitzgerald probe and the habitual excess of special counsels, no matter how lustily they once cheered the Starr inquisition. But while they’ll ignore the obvious differences, with characteristic hypocrisy, that doesn’t mean we have to.
The most telling contrast can be found in the matters under investigation. Mr. Starr spent tens of millions of dollars trying to prove wrongdoing by the Clintons in a defunct, money-losing land development that ended several years before they entered the White House. Somehow the Republicans—and certain news organizations—became convinced that those meaningless events raised questions of great national urgency.
Mr. Fitzgerald isn’t looking into musty real-estate deals. He is investigating the alleged misuse of classified information by White House officials to silence a critic, and their apparent cover-up of that potentially very serious crime. Those obscure real-estate dealings in rural Arkansas probably didn’t compromise national security, while the exposure of a C.I.A. official and her corporate cover may well have done so.
There is no partisan issue here. Mr. Fitzgerald is a Republican appointee, named by a Republican Justice Department to investigate alleged misconduct in a Republican administration, at the urging of a Republican President and his C.I.A. director. Mr. Starr was a Republican, appointed by a Republican-dominated judicial panel to investigate alleged misconduct by a Democratic President and his aides.
Mr. Fitzgerald is not only a Republican; he is also a highly competent prosecutor. Mr. Starr had no experience as a prosecutor, yet he was selected to replace another highly competent Republican prosecutor, Robert Fiske, who was deemed insufficiently eager to indict the Clintons for nonexistent crimes.
Mr. Fitzgerald has no known conflicts of interest in pursuing potential crimes committed by White House aides (unless it’s a conflict to embarrass the President who appointed him to his current post as U.S. Attorney for northern Illinois). When Mr. Starr was appointed, he was burdened by several conflicts with the Clinton administration, including civil lawsuits where he had taken the side of President Clinton’s opponents.
Finally, there’s an issue of investigative duration. If Mr. Fitzgerald seeks to extend the term of the grand jury sitting in Washington, which expires next October, Republicans will instantly complain that this has all dragged on long enough and must be wrapped up forthwith.
Actually, the special counsel has pursued the Wilson leak for well under two years. The Whitewater investigation continued fruitlessly for five years, continually changing from one topic and target to another, and should have concluded long before its theme shifted from savings-and-loan shenanigans to sexual indiscretions.
If only they were candid, the Rove Republicans would say that was then, this is now—and ethical consistency is strictly for losers.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.