overthinking the idiot box

October 31, 2005

Leaky Politics
The West Wing versus The Bush Administration
by Consuela Clabby

Watching The West Wing this season has been an exercise in truth being stranger than fiction.

I say this because the show has consciously set up a parallel between the fictional Bartlet White House and the current Bush administration, in the context of how to handle a national security leak. Or, it must be admitted, how not to, with the Bush administration as the cautionary tale. Bad decisions make good drama, they say; I expect life in the real West Wing is quite dramatic these days — more dramatic, in fact, than in the Bartlet White House.

The string of events that led to the special investigation, and thus to indictments of high-ranking White House staff, seem like the stuff of fiction. Because it's hard to believe that senior policy officials in the most influential positions in the land could engage in such a farrago of wrongheaded, illegal, and just plain stupid maneuvers. If you wrote it as a script, nobody would believe it. So let's do a compare-and-contrast of how the Bartlet and Bush White Houses handle an important national security leak. The Bartlet White House is a liberal fantasy, and a self-admitted one. Ergo, when White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler leaks the existence of a secret military space shuttle to the Washington Post, he does it out of a conviction that the decision to militarize space should be made in the sunlight, after a full and public debate on the Episode . However impractical and naive this position might be, and whatever the decision's national security and political repercussions, there's no question Toby takes this action out of the best of intentions. He's always been the idealist voice on the show in the face of political expediency, and the show has never once suggested otherwise. It's a noble decision, if a foolish one.

One might be charitable and read the tactic as a way of closing ranks in support of the president, but it primarily reads to me as vindictive and pointless.
Compare this to the real White House leak, which was apparently an attempt to discredit Joseph Wilson for contesting a statement the President made during the 2003 State of the Union address. Keep in mind that Wilson's public statements had no real impact on the drive to war; we went anyway. And yet that victory wasn't enough for the leaker: he or she struck out at Wilson, revealing his wife's covert status (and, I suppose, implying that he was only tasked with the job through his wife's CIA connections: how this was supposed to discredit him in an administration rife with crony appointments is lost on me). One might be charitable and read the tactic as a way of closing ranks in support of the president, but it primarily reads to me as vindictive and pointless. It's not idealism: it's calculated to discredit Wilson, and also operates as revenge on a petty scale. It's possible that this was a way of striking back at the CIA, whose analysts were often in disagreement with the White House on the threat of Iraq, but if so, it was a shockingly short-sighted act. What patriot tries to make political hay by violating the covert status of a CIA agent?

I will admit that in the greater scheme of things, revealing Valerie Plame's covert status could look like a lesser offense than revealing the existence of an entire secret military program that could destabilize foreign relations on a global scale. But I don't think anyone should get a pass for bad behavior just because it didn't cause much damage—and we don't know how much damage the loss of Plame as a working field operative actually caused. It's not like the CIA is going to tell us, after all.

When his co-workers in the White House are being subpoenaed, when the investigation begins to threaten the Santos campaign, and when it looks like CJ, probably his closest friend, is going to be put through the ringer, Toby Zeigler confesses. If he'd been willing to lie, he might have survived, given the way the investigation is focused on CJ and her relationship with the reporter in question. But Toby isn't willing to let his friends take the fall for him, and—I assume—isn't willing to see the damage a continued investigation would cause to the administration. It's a noble move, although a little late in the game, since Brock has already gone to jail for refusing to name Toby. I suppose it's possible Toby thinks that Brock signed on for that when he published the information, as compared to Toby's White House colleagues. Regardless of his reasoning, Toby does come forward, which will help limit the damage his impetuous action caused.

Whoever the leak was in the Bush White House (as of this writing, apparently Scooter Libby), he or she hasn't confessed, even though the investigation has dragged on for two years. How many miles and miles of newsprint have been published on this story? So much for loyalty to one's coworkers. Although I suppose if the boss is saying, "no, you have to stay on the job," that's another kind of loyalty, the kind that President Bush has relied on for many years. So, loyalty is at work, but maybe not a lot of honesty: do we really think that there's anyone in that building who hasn't been questioned about their involvement in the leak yet? And yet there have been no confessions: ergo, someone is lying. In fact, the indictments handed down on Friday make it clear that the one thing the special prosecutor does have evidence for is perjury.

Finally, the Bartlet White House is complying with the investigation freely, making sure that there isn't even an appearance of impropriety. When there's a suspicion that the White House's internal investigation may look like an attempt to cover up the source of the leak, the President shuts it down. When Toby confesses, he is immediately isolated from both his office and his coworkers, and everyone he has come into contact with is grilled on their interactions. CJ consistently tells her staff to tell the truth when questioned. It is above board on an institutional level, from the President down, and it looks like there won't be any "lost notes".

The latest rumor is that the administration's supporters are gearing up to sling mud at the Special Prosecutor. That's certainly one way of handling compliance with a national security investigation, if not one showing great dedication to the moral high road.
By comparison, the Bush White House has never worried itself with the appearance of impropriety, so far as I can tell. (Halliburton's billions of contracts in Iraq come to mind, and the now-failed nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.) And the latest rumor is that the administration's supporters are gearing up to sling mud at the Special Prosecutor. That's certainly one way of handling compliance with a national security investigation, if not one showing great dedication to the moral high road. Additionally, and even more astonishingly, it's become clear this past week that whatever else they did, senior White House staff covered it up. They lied about who they told and when they told it to them, and never once made an effort to open the doors and admit to wrongdoing. They lied, and other people in the White House knew they lied, and from where I sit, the administration as a whole spent a lot of energy trying to hide the truth rather than reveal it.

As was memorably noted after Watergate, it's not the original crime that brings them down, it's the cover-up. Which brings me back to my original point: it's honestly hard to believe that political operatives with thirty or more years experience could have handled this situation so stupidly. They're making an over-dramatized storyline on an aging television drama look boring by comparison.

There's no question that The West Wing's writers are telling this story as a deliberate statement on the Plame investigation. Look how this situation could have been handled, they seem to say, by people with integrity and conviction (however misplaced); now look how it's actually been managed. It's kind of brave, I admit, especially for a show that's recently gone to some trouble to reach across the aisle to the Republicans among its viewership. But this storyline is a return to the old days: it's an entirely partisan commentary on the Bush administration.

As for me, I'd like to know whether it's coincidence or good planning that has this arc running at the very point that the Plame investigation is coming to a close. Coincidence seems more likely: Regular federal grand juries are empaneled for 18 months, with a single possible extension of 6 months. By June 2004, word was out that a grand jury was investigating, but not when it was empaneled or whether it would be extended (which it apparently was). I think we can safely assume that the West Wing writing staff didn't know that the exposure of Toby would happen within the same calendar week that the Vice President's chief of staff would be indicted for five felony counts ranging from perjury to obstruction of justice.

The timing, however, is impeccable. Because it is, after all, only a week until sweeps. Art, life, life, art: who cares, so long as it gets good ratings.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 4.