At the Republican National Convention in 2000 that nominated him for vice president, Dick Cheney told a rapturous crowd that Democrats “will offer more lectures, and legalisms, and carefully worded denials. We offer another way, a better way, and a stiff dose of truth.”
So, Mr. Cheney, now that the Scooter Libby trial is raising doubts about your own integrity, you owe the nation an explanation. Here are a few questions to help frame your explanation of your activities:
Mr. Vice President, did you push Mr. Libby to dig into Joe Wilson’s background and discredit him?
Mr. Libby made such a major effort to gather materials from the C.I.A. and State Department about Mr. Wilson — both before and after you told him on June 12, 2003, that his wife worked at the C.I.A. — that it seems likely that you commanded the effort. True?
What did you mean when you wrote, in a note to Scott McClellan that has been entered into evidence, “not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy the Pres. that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others.”
First, you wrote that it was “the Pres.” who had asked Mr. Libby to do this, and then you crossed out those two words. Did President Bush indeed ask that Mr. Libby take charge of the effort to discredit Ambassador Wilson? And is it true, as was hinted at in the trial, that the White House tried to block the release of this document?
When you discussed Joe Wilson with Mr. Libby on Air Force Two on July 12, 2003, what instructions did you give him?
Trial testimony indicates that on that flight, Mr. Libby looked over some questions a reporter had sent in about Mr. Wilson and then said: “Let me go talk to the boss and I’ll be back.” After consulting with you, Mr. Libby later called reporters to feed them a skewed version of Mr. Wilson’s trip.
Mr. Cheney, on that plane, did you specifically tell Mr. Libby to leak to reporters the fact that Mr. Wilson’s wife worked at the C.I.A.?
Deborah Bond of the F.B.I. has testified that Mr. Libby acknowledged in one of his interviews that on that flight, he might have talked to you about whether to tell the news media about Valerie Wilson. So did he?
Since Mr. Libby is renowned for his caution, it seems highly unlikely that he would have leaked classified information twice to reporters right after talking to you, unless you had sanctioned the leak.
During the leak investigation, were you aware that Mr. Libby was telling the F.B.I. apparently false information?
You rode to work with him nearly every day in your limousine, and the issue never came up? Or did you ask Mr. Libby to protect you because you didn’t want it known that in fact you were the one who had told him about Ms. Wilson? Was there some other information you wanted kept secret?
Were you trying to cover up your own reliance on misinformation about Iraqi W.M.D. by blaming the C.I.A. and anybody else within range, like Mr. Wilson?
More than anybody, Mr. Vice President, you made the argument in the run-up to the war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And one senses, in the indictment and the trial testimony, that by the early summer of 2003, there was panic in your office that the W.M.D. had failed to materialize.
So when Ambassador Wilson came forward, you seem to have been infuriated. You tried to blame the C.I.A., and then your office tried to discredit Mr. Wilson by arguing that he had simply enjoyed a junket arranged by his wife.
Robert Grenier, a C.I.A. official, told the court that he thought the White House was “trying to avoid responsibility for positions that they took with regard to the truth about whether or not Iraq had attempted to acquire uranium from Niger.” So did this all arise from an attempted cover-up?
So when are you going to come clean?
When Richard Nixon was accused of misusing campaign contributions in 1952, he gave his famous Checkers speech. When questions rose about Spiro Agnew’s conduct in 1973, he repeatedly addressed them in public. (Look, you know you’re in trouble when the press tries to hold you to the same standards of transparency and integrity as Nixon and Agnew.)
I’m not accusing you of committing a crime. But there are serious questions here, and you owe the nation not legalisms, but that “stiff dose of truth.” If you continue to stonewall, then you don’t belong in office and you should resign.
You can add your comments about this column at www.nytimes.com/ontheground.
That would leave a mark on any normal human being, but we’re talking about Lord Voldemort here, so he’s unscathed… Next up, Stacy Schiff:
Football season is over, but there is no cause for despair. We are smack in the middle of an all-star backpedaling tournament.
Last week Joe Biden announced his candidacy with that loaded line about Barack Obama, “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Forget what Mr. Biden really meant to say. Think instead about where he went next, which was where Michael Richards and Mel Gibson had gone before him. Not only did Mr. Obama understand what he meant, insisted Mr. Biden, but “I have no doubt that Jesse Jackson and every other black leader — Al Sharpton and the rest — will know exactly what I meant.”
Indeed they did. The day ended with Mr. Sharpton assuring Mr. Biden that he bathed regularly. Rehabilitation came that evening on Jon Stewart; this is why television was invented.
Rule No. 1: Blame the context.
Rule No. 2: Blame the English language. (Punctuation is also fair game. Mr. Biden later enlisted an exculpatory comma.)
Rule No. 3: Go scattershot. Blame your humor-impaired audience (as Senator Kerry did); your ignorance (former Senator Allen, when asked to define “macaca”); your childhood (former Congressman Foley); in a pinch, but only in a pinch, your mother (Mr. Biden, again).
Rule No. 4, particularly useful if you can’t blame the English language and your own is unforgivingly precise: blame the microphone.
That was the route Jacques Chirac took after his nuclear remark about a nuclear Iran. “Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well, that’s not very dangerous,” Mr. Chirac said with a shrug. The press was summoned back, for a retake. “I should rather have paid attention to what I was saying and understood that perhaps I was on the record,” Mr. Chirac offered, as if the record rather than the remark were the issue. Then there was that little fillip about obliterating Tehran. “I retract it, of course,” Mr. Chirac added.
Which brings us to O. J. Is reconstructing a supposedly hypothetical version of a supposedly half-remembered crime backpedaling? I think I’ll opt for plain old delusional. Locking that farce away in a vault is corporate (and commendable) backpedaling, however.
Backpedaling is not apologizing. Apologizing is what you do when you have an affair with your campaign manager’s wife and are found out. Or after you have had a homosexual tryst in your living room while your wife is having a baby in the hospital. It is what you once did when you accidentally shot your hunting buddy in the face.
As anyone with a marriage license knows, there are apologies and apologies. To apologize for your philandering to the public but not your spouse is — just to pick a random example — the height of disingenuousness. Apologies can be easy, also cheap and common. Saddam Hussein apologized for invading Kuwait, after all.
Backpedaling, on the other hand, is subtle and strategic. The trick is to deflect adroitly without landing in an undignified puddle of overwrought remorse. There are no woodsheds or waterworks in this league. It is instead all artful insouciance. The backpedaler distances himself from his actions; the two are but dimly acquainted. He has essentially suffered an out-of-body experience, a brief abduction by bad judgment. It can happen to the best of us. Just ask Larry Summers. Backpedaling is apology in the passive voice, like suddenly acknowledging those secret C.I.A. prisons that we were unable to locate for a while there. It is to half-assume responsibility, to smoke but not inhale. Perhaps it’s imperfect, but we are grading on a curve these days.
As with most sports, technology has transformed this one. Jon Stewart and Oprah are its umpires, YouTube its steroids. Never have we and our words had to live in such tight quarters. Blurting just isn’t what it used to be in the days of Daniel Webster or William Jennings Bryan.
Nor is backpedaling for everyone. Some people, like some bikes, are just not capable of it. Let’s say that you have sunk your country into an unpopular war. Against expert judgment and a groundswell of opinion, you opt for escalation. Queried as to how you would answer a pollster who asked if you approved of that war, you reply, “You can put me down as a no.” That is unsporting, and a travesty.
Super Sunday may be behind us, but Super Tuesday is a year away. May the best backpedaler win.
Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America.” She is a guest columnist.
Oh. My. She can get cross, can’t she?! I really hope they keep Stacy Schiff on as a regular. They could kiss Bobo bye bye any time at all … …