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Washington’s view on ethics seems to be schizophrenic. Lawbreaking that is done for immediate personal gratification – primarily sexual or financial – is lavished with attention. Political opponents call for investigations and resignations, news outlets provide saturation coverage, vehement denunciations are issued and defenses raised, and generally speaking a high old time is had by all. Since Republicans like to appeal to voters as the party of values and morality there is usually a credible charge of hypocrisy coming from the left when it’s a GOP perpetrator. But the capitol is entirely unequipped to grapple with illegality that happens for less obvious reasons, and elites tend to bend over backwards to rationalize it when they are forced to confront it.
The templates for both approaches were nicely illustrated by two Washington Post writers in the 90’s. The high dudgeon/fainting couch approach to sexual mores was sketched out in a now-legendary 1998 article by Sally Quinn, wherein leading lights recoiled in the horror of Bill Clinton getting a blow job from an intern and then lying about it in a civil suit. "He came in here and he trashed the place and it’s not his place" huffed David Broder, while Joe Lieberman thundered "Before this is over the truth must be told." It even includes a quote from a socialite named Muffie, foreshadowing of the impending death of parody.
The model for rationalizing lawlessness may have been created by Richard Cohen in 1992. Looking at the pardon of Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran Contra scandal, Cohen ponders the issue from the perspective of having seen Weinberger at the supermarket and concludes, "Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that’s all right with me." His actions in the Iran Contra scandal – which, remember, was an entire shadow foreign policy being run out of the White House that involved selling weapons to the very regime that took our people hostage in order to secretly and illegally fund a civil war in a country of zero strategic importance – did not trouble Cohen. Cap was his Safeway buddy, a salt of the earth guy who never fooled around with anyone. Therefore, anything that he did in his official capacity as Defense Secretary was just fine.
Echoes from that can be heard by Chuck Todd when he says, "There was no doubt the White House, the previous White House was trying to play politics with US attorney selections. That has been proven. Except what did we also find out – it was perfectly legal…they serve at the pleasure of the president" (a phrase he uses twice in the Greenwald interview even though it long ago passed into ridicule). The idea that US Attorneys serve at will but still enjoy protections against certain kinds of termination literally does not occur to him. Since there were no favors or money exchanged it could not be illegal. Thus with looking glass logic the firing of US Attorneys for refusing to launch bogus investigations of Democrats right before an election is not the politicization of policy differences; an investigation of it is, however. Which incidentally means there is a functional statute of limitations on presidential criminality: the last day of that president’s term. Beyond that we are on a witch hunt and litigating the past.
Such a resolute effort to keep high officials above the law may make everyone much more comfortable at the grocery store but it is not proving very satisfactory outside of the hothouse. Physicians for Human Rights is calling for investigations into doctors at international detention sites, and wants their licenses revoked if it turns out they assisted in torture. Similarly, the American Psychological Association is embroiled in controversy over its past and current support of torture. Great Britain has successfully prosecuted a group plotting attacks there, and it was done with traditional FISA-compliant surveillance. Spain appears to be ready to proceed with torture prosecutions for the Bush Six.
The momentum just about everywhere but the capitol is for investigations to begin and any necessary accounting made. Only in Washington do people continue to insist we keep walking and ignore all evidence of serious wrongdoing. Would, say, a war crimes trial for a former vice president be political? Yes – because his defenders would insist that it was entirely driven by score settling. Would it bring DC to a standstill? Of course it would. I tend to think everything should stand still for a war crimes trial. And even if our elites want to keep walking, the rest of the world has decided to linger a bit. The more the distance between the two grows, the worse the current ruling class will look to history.