The prosecutor’s diagnosis was that no cancer was found


Published: Tuesday, November 1, 2005 at 9:10 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2005 at 9:10 a.m.

On March 21, 1973, John Dean told President Nixon that there was a cancer on his presidency. There was, Dean said, a metastasizing criminal conspiracy spreading through the White House.

Thirty-two years later, Patrick Fitzgerald has just completed a 22-month investigation of the Bush presidency. One thing is clear: There is no cancer on this presidency. Fitzgerald, who seems to be a model prosecutor, enjoyed what he called full cooperation from all federal agencies. He found enough evidence to indict one man, Scooter Libby, on serious charges.

But he did not find evidence to prove that there was a broad conspiracy to out a covert agent for political gain. He did not find evidence of wide-ranging criminal behavior. He did not even indict the media’s ordained villain, Karl Rove. And as the former prosecutors Robert Ray and Richard Ben-Veniste said on PBS’ ‘‘The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,’’ he gave little indication he was going to do that in the future.

Fitzgerald went as far as the evidence led him. In so doing, he momentarily punctured the wave of hysteria that had been building around the case. Over the past few weeks, oceans of ink and an infinity of airtime have been devoted to theorizing about Rove’s conspiratorial genius and general culpability — almost all of it hokum. Leading Democratic politicians filled the air with grand conspiracy theories that would be at home in the John Birch Society.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg assented that Rove was guilty of treason. Howard Dean talked about a ‘‘huge cover-up.’’ Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York said: ‘‘The CIA leak issue is only the tip of the iceberg. This is looking increasingly like a White House conspiracy aimed at misleading our country into war.”

One may wish it, but that doesn’t make it so. We do know that the White House lied about who was involved in calling reporters. But as for traitorous behavior, huge cover-ups and well-orchestrated conspiracies — that’s swamp gas.

As it turned out, Fitzgerald’s careful and forceful presentation of the evidence was but a brief respite from the tide of hysterical accusations. Fitzgerald may have pointed out that this case is not about supporting or opposing the war; it’s about possible perjury and obstruction of justice. But the Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid immediately ran out with some amorphous argument intended to show that this indictment indeed is all about the war. Ted Kennedy, likening Fitzgerald’s findings to Watergate, insisted, “This is far more than an indictment of an individual,” before casting his net far and wide. And Howard Dean, who doesn’t fly off the handle but lives off it, grandly asserted that Fitzgerald’s findings indicate that “a group of senior White House officials” ignored the rule of law.

The question is, why are these people so compulsively overheated? One of the president’s top advisers is indicted on serious charges. Why are they incapable of leaving it at that? Why do they have to slather on wild, unsupported charges that do little more than make them look unhinged?

The answer is found in an essay written about 40 years ago by Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter argued that sometimes people who are dispossessed, who feel their country has been taken away from them and their kind, develop an angry, suspicious and conspiratorial frame of mind. It is never enough to believe their opponents have committed honest mistakes or have legitimate purposes; they insist on believing in malicious conspiracies.

“The paranoid spokesman,” Hofstadter wrote, “sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.” Because his opponents are so evil, the conspiracy monger is never content with anything but their total destruction. Failure to achieve this unattainable goal “constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.” Thus, “even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

So some Democrats were not content with Libby’s indictment, but had to stretch, distort and exaggerate. The tragic thing is that at the exact moment when the Republican Party is staggering under the weight of its own mistakes, the Democratic Party’s loudest voices are in the grip of passions that render them untrustworthy.

David Brooks writes for The New York Times News Service.

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