Politics & Policy


A prosecutor's fame.

Who knew that a special prosecutor working to nail high government officials on perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges would become a media and Democratic hero? It’s not the 1990s anymore.

CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is celebrated by the press and Bush haters everywhere. He is hailed for his no-nonsense style, his down-to-earth Brooklyn accent, his probity, his zealousness upholding the rule of law, and his willingness to hunt down lies no matter how high it takes him in the Washington food chain. “All my friends want to date him,” a young liberal woman tells me.

But the very qualities that are so endearing about a special prosecutor circa 2005 would have been damnable circa 1995. It goes to show that when you’re a special prosecutor, the quality of your work is not as important as the decade you do it in. Had Fitzgerald suffered the misfortune of being asked to investigate any of the Bill Clinton scandals, he would likely have emerged bruised and battered, with a reputation as an out-of-control fanatic.

Fitzgerald has a black-and-white view of the world. So did Clinton-era independent counsel Ken Starr. Fitzgerald is, by all counts, personally upright. So is Starr. He takes lying under oath seriously. So did Starr. He is willing to pursue perjury allegations even when there is not an underlying crime. So was Starr. The difference is that Starr was arrayed against a White House that declared war on him, his staff and his investigation.

Fitzgerald and Starr aren’t exact duplicates. Fitzgerald is an experienced prosecutor. Starr wasn’t. But this actually worked in the Clinton White House’s favor, since a hard-bitten prosecutor treating the president like any other suspect–a prosecutor like “Fitzy” in other words–might have been more effective and ruthless. Fitzgerald’s prosecution has also been leak-proof. Starr’s wasn’t, although many of the leaks attributed to his office came from Clinton spinners seeking both to get out bad news early and to discredit Starr for leaking.

In contrast to Fitzgerald, Starr’s uprightness was used against him, to prove that he was a hopeless stiff. That he tried to engage in standard prosecutorial methods–like flipping low-level witnesses against their superiors, a favored Fitzgerald tactic that liberals hope he is attempting in this case–was taken as evidence of his extremism. He was accused of being “obsessed with sex,” when he had no say in whether Clinton decided to have sex with an intern and lie about it (surely, he would have advised against it). This would be like accusing Fitzgerald of being perversely “obsessed with secrecy,” since he is investigating the mishandling of classified material.

President Bush has inflicted no indignities on Fitzgerald, whose investigation he has in fact called “dignified.” The administration actively eased the prosecutor’s work by having top officials sign waivers of their confidentiality agreements with reporters. As National Review reporter Byron York has pointed out, far from assisting Starr, Clinton officials entered into joint-defense agreements, a maneuver often used by defendants in mob cases.

Of course, the politics of scandal in Washington is a movable feast of hypocrisy, shifting every decade depending on which party controls the executive branch. Liberals loved special prosecutors in the 1980s; then many conservatives adopted them in the 1990s; now the left adores the criminalization of politics once again. But it is especially unseemly to see the same people who pooh-poohed President Clinton’s repeated perjuries in 1998 suddenly worked up by a few alleged lies under oath by a vice president’s chief of staff. What happened to getting on with the business of the country?

With the exception of a feint by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, which she immediately regretted, and few other wobbles, at least conservatives haven’t contradicted their core contention from the 1990s that lying under oath is a serious crime. In this, they finally have some company from liberals, who also have a strange, newfound affection for relentlessly truth-seeking prosecutors.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2005 King Features Syndicate


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