One of the most irritating things about mainstream media coverage of the Bush administration, including its coverage of the commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence, is its pervasive use of the word “conservative” to describe the administration’s (and Libby’s) core supporters. To me, this has given respectable semantic cover to what really are a collection of right-wing radicals – mostly ultra-nationalist hawks, like Libby’s former boss and John Bolton; pro-Likud (and, in the case of the older generation, often former Trotskyite) neo-conservatives, and leaders of the Christian Right — who have made clear time and again that they have little or no respect for law and tradition if either one should somehow constrain their freedom to make the world a better place. (For more on the Libby case and the neo-cons’ Nietschean exceptionalism, see Scott Horton’s blog entry today at the Harper’s Magazine website.)
What, after all, is “conservative” about campaigning for the presidential pardon of a man convicted by a jury of his peers of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a federal grand jury and thus obstructing the ability of career prosecutors to determine whether he, the vice president and/or others in the White House conspired to “out” a covert CIA operative (see Carol Leonnig’s article, “Myths About Scooter and the Slammer” to put the issue of Valerie Plame’s covert status to rest) in violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, let alone to manipulate and subvert the intelligence process so as to take the country to war under highly questionable pretenses? For that matter, what is “conservative” about the theory of a “unitary executive,” or invading and occupying a country that poses no imminent threat to the U.S. or to any of its allies, or tearing up the Geneva Conventions — positions that have been championed by the same people who pressed Bush to pardon Libby?
Yet here is how the Washington Post referred to Libby’s and the administration’s supporters in its coverage of the commutation Tuesday:
“Bush, who for months had sidestepped calls from conservatives to come to Libby’s aid, broke his silence early yesterday…”
“Although he eliminated Libby’s prison term, Bush did not grant him a full pardon, which was sought by some conservatives would have erased his conviction.”
“Still the president appeared to calculate that he would antagonize his conservative base too severely if he did not provide Libby some form of reprieve, according to people close to the White House.”
“The White House appeared to be calculating that no matter what he did to keep Libby out of prison, Bush would not make Democrats happy, and if he did nothing, he would infuriate his strongest conservative supporters. As it was, some conservatives thought that Bush should have pardoned Libby and ended his legal battles.”
“William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a leading advocate of pardoning Libby, described yesterday as a ‘very good moment for the president. By acting here, he is showing to conservatives the kind of leadership that made conservatives loyal to Bush once and could make them loyal once more,’ Kristol said.”
“But other conservatives who wanted Libby to be pardoned reacted angrily, saying that Bush did not go far enough.”
“’A lot of people are going to be bitter about this,’ said a Washington conservative who is close to Libby and asked not to be identified as criticizing Bush.”
And here is how the New York Times described Bush’s core constituency:
“President Bush’s decision to commute the sentence of I. Lewis Libby Jr. was the act of a liberated man – a leader who knows that, with 18 months left in the Oval Office, and only a dwindling band of conservatives still behind him, he might as well do what he wants.”
“But to the conservative believers who make up Mr. Bush’s political base, the Libby case was a test of the president’s political will.”
“’I think conservatives would have lost respect for Bush if he had not commuted Libby’s sentence,’ [Kristol said].”
“The commutation brought immediate praise from conservatives, who hailed it as a courageous step to avert a miscarriage of justice…”
“Conservative backers of Mr. Bush contended that because no one was charged with leaking Ms. Wilson’s identity, the investigation should have been dropped altogether.”
“Conservative” was used with similar abandon to describe Bush’s and Libby’s supporters in the rest of the mainstream press, both print and broadcast.
The American Heritage Dictionary – as good a source as any, given the topic – defines “conservatism” as “1. The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order. 2. A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order.” To me, this definition, among other things, suggests that true conservatives in an Anglo-American context, would be respectful of the rule of law (both national and international), the separation of powers, and historical precedent – attributes that simply do not apply to the “conservative” backers of Mr. Bush who urged him to pardon Libby. After all, one would think respect for traditional institutions, such as the judiciary (including the Republican-appointees of the appeals court that rejected Libby’s petition for a stay of the sentence pending appeal, and the Republican-appointed judge who presided over the trial and sentenced Libby), would call for a certain deference on the part of a truly “conservative” president and his supporters.
“Radical,” on the other hand, is defined by the same dictionary as “departing markedly from the usual or customary; extreme… Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions.” This might certainly apply to those who believe in a unitary executive that gives the president virtually monarchical powers, who favour preventive war against presumed enemies, who consider the Geneva Conventions to be “quaint,” and who believe that a high-ranking official who is found guilty by a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt” (contrary to the National Review’s assertion that Libby had a “credible defense” or the Wall Street Journal’s belief that Libby “lost track of what he said, when he said it, and to whom”) of perjury and obstruction of justice in a case involving national security should not be held accountable in any significant sense. Yet, more than six years into the most “radically” right-wing administration since at least the Great Depression, the mainstream media is still providing its core constituency with the reassuring, entirely respectable — and highly misleading — label of “conservative.”
Ironically, of course, “conservative” better describes those in the national-security bureaucracy who, like Amb. Joe Wilson, not only voted for Bush in 2000, but donated money to his campaign, in the belief that Bush would carry out a “humbler” foreign policy more along the lines of his father than of Bill Clinton, only to recoil in horror when it became clear that the radical right had gained control of foreign policy after 9/11 and set it on a trajectory that ‘’departed markedly from the usual or customary.”