These days, Washington is looking a little too much like Las Vegas of the early '80s. Neither place should be flattered by the comparison.
Working as a kid journalist in Vegas back then was like finding yourself at the opera — not in the audience but onstage, surrounded by prima donnas playing out a high-stake drama of power, greed, sex and murder.
Headless bodies were appearing in the desert. Cars were getting blown up. A local federal judge publicly attacked federal law enforcement as "a bunch of crooks." Mobsters were not just part of the community, they were public figures, and they would call favorite reporters to plant stories about their rivals or discredit cops they couldn't buy off.
And everyone who thought of themselves as players — mobsters, politicians, businessmen and not a few journalists — traded information, access and anything that might bring them that most treasured of Vegas commodities, "juice."
"Juice" was power. "Juice" not only meant you got your phone calls returned, it meant you got free seats for Frank's show at Caesars. Juice meant you knew people who knew people; losing juice was the worst thing that could happen to you.
Well, other than ending up out in the desert without a head. And the crazy thing is, everybody in town acted as if all this was perfectly nice and normal.
Everybody but FBI Special Agent in Charge Joe Yablonsky. He came to town with this notion that Las Vegas was part of the United States and that federal law applied there. He thought that people in Vegas ought to pay taxes on their income, and the Mafia shouldn't skim profits from casinos and re-invest it in politicians. He quickly became a reviled figure, and some of the most powerful people in Vegas tried to run him out of town. Journalists would attack him regularly, complaining that he just didn't understand how Vegas worked.
But Yablonsky knew quite well how Vegas worked. He proved it by putting mobsters, politicians and businessmen behind bars.
Oh, and that federal judge too.
That was a long time ago. But over the past few years, watching how the Washington press corps handled the run-up to the Iraq invasion, a sense of déjà vu kept creeping over me. I had seen this kind of thing before.
The Washington establishment had decided that the nation had to be taken to war. That much was clear. But watching from the outside, it looked for all the world as though the leading lights in the Washington press had decided to play along with that decision.
Thus, information that advanced the argument for war was printed or broadcast without skepticism. Information that might have challenged that decision or raised doubt in the public mind was squelched. High-profile Washington journalists who had become more loyal to Washington than to journalism simply did not do their job, and the country has suffered as a result.
Today, with the invasion looking like the biggest foreign policy mistake in U.S. history, a lot of people in Washington, including members of the press, are trying to claim they had no way to know. That's baloney.
The administration's prewar claim of an alliance between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden had been transparently, ludicrously silly. Contrary to administration assertions, experts in and out of government had warned that occupying Iraq would be terribly expensive and difficult. But nobody listened, including most of the media.
Perhaps the most egregious practitioner was Judith Miller of The New York Times. She became an eager conduit for "scoops" leaked to her by the administration. By publishing those leaks in the most respected newspaper in the country, she turned fabrication into fact and turned herself into a star. She got "juice."
These days, though, Miller is being squeezed of that juice like an overripe orange. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating charges that administration officials illegally leaked the identity of an undercover CIA operative to the press, including Miller. His grand jury probe is raising uncomfortable questions about the way information is used in Washington to reward the docile and punish the inquisitive.
It's gotten so bad that last week, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post wrote a column instructing Fitzgerald to pack his bags and leave, because he just doesn't understand how Washington works. Maybe some federal laws were broken, Cohen wrote, but those laws aren't Washington's laws. If Fitzgerald pursues the case too hard, Cohen worried, he might actually "intimidate the press in its pursuit of truth, fame and choice restaurant tables."
I'm afraid he actually meant it.
Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor.
© 2005 Atlanta-Journal Constitution