“You can’t get away from the fact that he’s a loony doctor, however much he may call himself a nerve specialist.”
–PG Wodehouse, (roughly quote from memory)
Even to a country accustomed to viewing open lawlessness by its government as part of the scenery, the administration’s ‘commutation’ of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence comes as a bit of a shock. No matter how many jurists are paraded across the TV screen drawing fine distinctions between commutation and pardon, the public knows in its bones there has been dirty work at the crossroads.
Here was a man tried and convicted in a court of law after a proper jury trial. The case was not some complicated government contract; the backdrop involved the outing of a CIA agent, an act alleged to have been instigated by the vice president himself. The case itself was even more simple — lying under oath. The outing was to be a retaliation against the agent’s husband, a former US diplomat in Iraq, who had publicly refuted a key argument by the government government’s regarding Iraq’s nuclear activities, a cornerstone of the administration’s public legacy. Following his conviction, Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The trial judge rejected appeals for leniency, adhering to established guidelines; and a higher court threw out a request to delay the start of jail time. Just hours after Libby’s appeal was denied, the White House had issued a commutation of his prison sentence. There was not even a pro-forma consultation with the Justice Department, according to news reports.
Nor was this president known to be a soft touch in these matters. This was, after all, the same man who had giggled gleefully in a televised presidential debate while talking about his no-nonsense attitude towards those condemned to death. He rejected clemency appeals even from those who had had unfair trials.
For the man on the street, then, it is like the MasterCard commercial: Kill thousands in a faraway war: who cares? Spy on your citizens: haven’t they always? Dump habeas corpus: Latin. Pardon a felon because he’s your buddy: PRICELESS.
Finally, the full array of all the administration’s proclivities comes packaged in one easy-to-understand crime that passes the elevator test (can you explain your case to a fellow elevator passenger by the time the ride is done?) with flying colors!
The Unraveling should now accelerate. Of course, we reckon without Congress and the Democrats, but the beauty of the pardon is that it bypasses all obfuscation and lays bare the innate criminality of the Bush-Cheney gang as nothing else. When I was growing up in India many decades back, only the rich had cars; the public could only dream of scooters. As they said then, if we can’t get a Kar(l), we’ll settle for a Scooter.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.