THERE was never any question that President Bush would grant amnesty to Scooter Libby, the man who knows too much about the lies told to sell the war in Iraq. The only questions were when, and how, Mr. Bush would buy Mr. Libby's silence. Now we have the answers, and they're at least as incriminating as the act itself. They reveal the continued ferocity of a White House cover-up and expose the true character of a commander in chief whose tough-guy shtick can no longer camouflage his fundamental cowardice.
The timing of the president's Libby intervention was a surprise. Many assumed he would mimic the sleazy 11th-hour examples of most recent vintage: his father's pardon of six Iran-contra defendants who might have dragged him into that scandal, and Bill Clinton's pardon of the tax fugitive Marc Rich, the former husband of a major campaign contributor and the former client of none other than the ubiquitous Mr. Libby.
But the ever-impetuous current President Bush acted 18 months before his scheduled eviction from the White House. Even more surprising, he did so when the Titanic that is his presidency had just hit two fresh icebergs, the demise of the immigration bill and the growing revolt of Republican senators against his strategy in Iraq.
That Mr. Bush, already suffering historically low approval ratings, would invite another hit has been attributed in Washington to his desire to placate what remains of his base. By this logic, he had nothing left to lose. He didn't care if he looked like an utter hypocrite, giving his crony a freer ride than Paris Hilton and violating the white-collar sentencing guidelines set by his own administration. He had to throw a bone to the last grumpy old white guys watching Bill O'Reilly in a bunker.
But if those die-hards haven't deserted him by now, why would Mr. Libby's incarceration be the final straw? They certainly weren't whipped into a frenzy by coverage on Fox News, which tended to minimize the leak case as a non-event. Mr. Libby, faceless and voiceless to most Americans, is no Ollie North, and he provoked no right-wing firestorm akin to the uproars over Terri Schiavo, Harriet Miers or "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
The only people clamoring for Mr. Libby's freedom were the pundits who still believe that Saddam secured uranium in Africa and who still hope that any exoneration of Mr. Libby might make them look less like dupes for aiding and abetting the hyped case for war. That select group is not the Republican base so much as a roster of the past, present and future holders of quasi-academic titles at neocon think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute.
What this crowd never understood is that Mr. Bush's highest priority is always to protect himself. So he stiffed them too. Had the president wanted to placate the Weekly Standard crowd, he would have given Mr. Libby a full pardon. That he served up a commutation instead is revealing of just how worried the president is about the beans Mr. Libby could spill about his and Dick Cheney's use of prewar intelligence.
Valerie Wilson still has a civil suit pending. The Democratic inquisitor in the House, Henry Waxman, still has the uranium hoax underlying this case at the top of his agenda as an active investigation. A commutation puts up more roadblocks by keeping Mr. Libby's appeal of his conviction alive and his Fifth Amendment rights intact. He can't testify without risking self-incrimination. Meanwhile, we are asked to believe that he has paid his remaining $250,000 debt to society independently of his private $5 million "legal defense fund."
The president's presentation of the commutation is more revealing still. Had Mr. Bush really believed he was doing the right and honorable thing, he would not have commuted Mr. Libby's jail sentence by press release just before the July Fourth holiday without consulting Justice Department lawyers. That's the behavior of an accountant cooking the books in the dead of night, not the proud act of a patriot standing on principle.
When the furor followed Mr. Bush from Kennebunkport to Washington despite his efforts to duck it, he further underlined his embarrassment by taking his only few questions on the subject during a photo op at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. You know this president is up to no good whenever he hides behind the troops. This instance was particularly shameful, since Mr. Bush also used the occasion to trivialize the scandalous maltreatment of Walter Reed patients on his watch as merely "some bureaucratic red-tape issues."
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Asked last week to explain the president's poll numbers, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center told NBC News that "when we ask people to summon up one word that comes to mind" to describe Mr. Bush, it's "incompetence." But cowardice, the character trait so evident in his furtive handling of the Libby commutation, is as important to understanding Mr. Bush's cratered presidency as incompetence, cronyism and hubris.
Even The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, a consistent Bush and Libby defender, had to take notice. Furious that the president had not given Mr. Libby a full pardon (at least not yet), The Journal called the Bush commutation statement a "profile in non-courage."
What it did not recognize, or chose not to recognize, is that this non-courage, to use The Journal's euphemism, has been this president's stock in trade, far exceeding the "wimp factor" that Newsweek once attributed to his father. The younger Mr. Bush's cowardice is arguably more responsible for the calamities of his leadership than anything else.
People don't change. Mr. Bush's failure to have the courage of his own convictions was apparent early in his history, when he professed support for the Vietnam War yet kept himself out of harm's way when he had the chance to serve in it. In the White House, he has often repeated the feckless pattern that he set back then and reaffirmed last week in his hide-and-seek bestowing of the Libby commutation.
The first fight he conspicuously ran away from as president was in August 2001. Aspiring to halt federal underwriting of embryonic stem-cell research, he didn't stand up and say so but instead unveiled a bogus "compromise" that promised continued federal research on 60 existing stem-cell lines. Only later would we learn that all but 11 of them did not exist. When Mr. Bush wanted to endorse a constitutional amendment to "protect" marriage, he again cowered. A planned 2006 Rose Garden announcement to a crowd of religious-right supporters was abruptly moved from the sunlight into a shadowy auditorium away from the White House.
Nowhere is this president's non-courage more evident than in the "signing statements" The Boston Globe exposed last year. As Charlie Savage reported, Mr. Bush "quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office." Rather than veto them in public view, he signed them, waited until after the press and lawmakers left the White House, and then filed statements in the Federal Register asserting that he would ignore laws he (not the courts) judged unconstitutional. This was the extralegal trick Mr. Bush used to bypass the ban on torture. It allowed him to make a coward's escape from the moral (and legal) responsibility of arguing for so radical a break with American practice.
In the end, it was also this president's profile in non-courage that greased the skids for the Iraq fiasco. If Mr. Bush had had the guts to put America on a true wartime footing by appealing to his fellow citizens for sacrifice, possibly even a draft if required, then he might have had at least a chance of amassing the resources needed to secure Iraq after we invaded it.
But he never backed up the rhetoric of war with the stand-up action needed to prosecute the war. Instead he relied on fomenting fear, as typified by the false uranium claims whose genesis has been covered up by Mr. Libby's obstructions of justice. Mr. Bush's cowardly abdication of the tough responsibilities of wartime leadership ratified Donald Rumsfeld's decision to go into Iraq with the army he had, ensuring our defeat.
Never underestimate the power of the unconscious. Not the least of the revelatory aspects of Mr. Bush's commutation is that he picked the fourth anniversary of "Bring 'em on" to hand it down. It was on July 2, 2003, that the president responded to the continued violence in Iraq, two months after "Mission Accomplished," by taunting those who want "to harm American troops." Mr. Bush assured the world that "we've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." The "surge" notwithstanding, we still don't have the force necessary four years later, because the president never did summon the courage, even as disaster loomed, to back up his own convictions by going to the mat to secure that force.
No one can stop Mr. Bush from freeing a pathetic little fall guy like Scooter Libby. But only those who paid the ultimate price for the avoidable bungling of Iraq have the moral authority to pardon Mr. Bush.