The Washington Times

One of my fellow dads angled up to me on the sidelines of our daughters’ soccer game two Saturdays ago, gave me a wry smile and asked whether I thought this leak scandal had legs.

This wasn’t the first time I’d run into an unexpected question about the potential severity of an unfolding Washington scandal. My favorite instance took place getting off a bus in Geneva with a group of Swiss and American “young leaders.” An American Roman Catholic priest I’d just met asked me, out of the blue, “Do you think Filegate has legs?”

Back at the soccer game, I could only answer truthfully that I didn’t know. My interlocutor’s grin broadened. The white-collar bar, he said, was getting pretty excited!

Well, yes, it really has been a long time since the last serious Washington scandal. Do we have a new one at hand in the blowing of Victoria Plame’s CIA cover?

Maybe. Clearly, someone is in trouble. What happened was wrong and possibly criminal [though I would think, at worst, at about the sentencing level of probation and community service]. It is hard to figure out who leaked a particular fact, given that the news media won’t, on principle, cooperate. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

On the other hand, the story has seemed starved for revelation for days. The blogosphere, where the scandal had its origins, is choked with theory and counter-theory as well as outrage, but short on fact. It is never difficult to tell when a newspaper or, more broadly, the media, have decided to push a story hard – to keep it on the front page above the fold or at the top of the hour. It is also not hard to tell when this determination becomes hard to sustain on the merits of the news.

The typical pattern of Washington scandal, as Suzanne Garment explained in what is still the definitive book on the subject, “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics” [1992], is an initial lapse of judgment or worse, followed by panic on the part of the person or persons involved leading to a decision to try to cover up the offense – the cover-up then becoming the far more serious matter.

As details emerge, the press goes into a feeding frenzy, and Congress gets involved. Not only the political opposition, but also some members of the perpetrators’ party acknowledge the seriousness of the matter. Then comes the appointment of an independent counsel.

And, if I may offer a coda to Mrs. Garment, years later, the appeals courts overturn most of the convictions and the impeachment goes down in flames. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

So familiar has this process become that it seemed as if those promoting the Plame scandal thought they could compress it into a matter of weeks: The Washington scandal culture has become aware of itself as such, which tempts people to think they can force matters from Point A to Point D without touching upon B, C and D.

Thus, mere days after the Plame story broke in the mainstream press, some Democrats were calling for an outside investigator and Sen. Joe Lieberman was even talking about reviving the late and unlamented independent counsel statute, as if what the country needed were more presidential impeachments based on congressional abuse of executive constitutional powers, as in the case of Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson.

But there have been several important changes in Washington scandal culture, and it would behoove all concerned to take note of them.

First of all is the now-widespread understanding that scandal-mongering is at core a partisan activity. There was a time when this wasn’t thought necessarily to be so. Watergate and Iran-Contra looked to Democrats and many members of the elite media as the emergence of objective truth, not [also] as the pursuit of a strategy designed to undermine the political opposition.

Democrats didn’t have any trouble understanding the partisan motivation of Republicans pursuing the Clinton scandals – as, by the way, Republicans had had little difficulty so construing the motivation behind Iran-Contra.

Unfortunately, some Democrats now seem to think it’s 1986 all over again and that blatant partisan attack will once again be received as disinterested inquiry.

It won’t. In the first place, the raw political balance has changed: Republicans, not Democrats, control Congress, and that fact limits Democrats’ reach.

Second, in the event that changes, nevertheless people now seem fairly well-acquainted with congressional partisanship and are unlikely to take its workings for independent-minded fact-finding again.

Third, the media culture has changed. Conservatives and GOP partisans now have more than adequate means to offer an exculpatory counter-narrative [a capability Democrats retain – once again, see the Clinton impeachment defense].

Finally, scandal-mongering is not cost-free to the scandal-monger. In fact, it is a distinctly unattractive line of work that takes a political toll on its practitioners as well.

Washington Democrats could have learned this lesson from the Republican experience. But like Gray Davis, they will probably have to learn it for themselves.