Double Standards

The Right’s Scandal Hypocrisy

When it comes to presidential scandal, conservatives are utter hypocrites, says Michael Tomasky.

It’s pretty rich, isn’t it, to see conservatives, not so long ago such ferocious guardians of presidential prerogative, suddenly acting as if they’d all interned at Common Cause when they were in college and thumping their chests about presidential transparency? I bet we could count on one hand—or more likely, on no hands—the number of conservative commentators who were insisting that the Bush White House should come clean about what Scooter Libby did in relation to the Valerie Plame matter. But now, suddenly, Barack Obama must come clean on all particulars, or he’s, you guessed it, the dreaded Nixon! Of course, Nixon wasn’t always the dreaded Nixon, because to the conservatives of the early 1970s who agreed 110 percent with Tricky Dick’s claims of executive privilege, he was the heroic, stalwart Nixon. It’s only when a Democrat is in, apparently, that democracy itself is on the line.

Democrats and liberals do the same thing to some extent when the situations are reversed, sure. But only to an extent. The ease of movement from sarcophagal stonewalling to high dudgeon is a peculiarly right-wing trait, because it’s the right that started the modern-day sense that you’re either on the team or in the shithouse. You might think in some dark, private space that Benghazi is mostly smoke, but if you’re trying to make your bones as part of the right-wing noise machine, you know to keep those doubts to yourself.

I can name you a number of liberal columnists who thought in 1998 that Bill Clinton had disgraced his office and who wrote absolutely scabrously of him, even calling for his resignation. The late, great Lars Erik Nelson called on Clinton to resign (even while making it clear that he thought that impeaching the president over a lie about sex was loony-bin material). Chris Matthews, now embraced by tout liberalisme, used to gut Clinton on a nightly basis. Frank Rich, then on the Times's op-ed page, wrote vicious things about him—and later about Al Gore, columns that actively helped George W. Bush. I could name many more. They were not excommunicated. But among conservatives, uh-uh. Once you leave the reservation, you’re not invited back.

Conservatives know deep down that they have to toe the line or risk banishment. Of course they can’t acknowledge this. So they just grab their robes, take their place in the chorus, and start singing. As for the tune, it’s simple: they must construct an argument that the Democratic crime is somehow worse than the preceding Republican crime, because once they establish and agree on that, then it’s bombs away. They can justify all their howling by arguing that this scandal is more serious, more deserving of the gravest steps being taken. For the sake of our great nation, of course.

Thus Peggy Noonan’s I’m-ready-for-the-sanatorium column last week about how we’re “in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.” For God’s sake. This doesn’t even rise to the level of being a joke. There were three or four or 20 Bush scandals that didn’t even register in official terms because Democrats were afraid to push them. Can you imagine what might have happened if the Democratic-controlled House in 2007 had decided to go back and hold repeated hearings on, and subpoena documents relating to, Abu Ghraib or Gitmo or torture or even Katrina preparations? I can promise you that at the very least we’d have seen the same kind of bureaucratic ass-covering we’ve seen in the Benghazi emails.

Except that we wouldn’t have seen that, because the Bush administration, under the baleful baton of Dick Cheney, would have refused to answer any such subpoenas, as it in fact repeatedly did. And the same pundits now screaming their heads off for transparency would have been, and in a lot of cases were, defending the Cheney position with their last, panting, dishonest breaths.

I am not saying here that Obama should follow the Cheney model. That model, aside from being pretty lousy for both Cheney and Bush’s reputations, genuinely was horrible for the country. If Cheney had had his way, we’d have an executive branch that literally could use the IRS to single out political enemies. It could do pretty much anything it wanted.

So Obama shouldn’t try to emulate Cheney. But that doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t play some hardball of their own. I am thinking back again to 1998. Remember Indiana Republican congressman Dan Burton? In those days, Burton was the wingiest of the wingy, shooting a cantaloupe in his backyard in an attempt to prove that Vince Foster was murdered. But even Burton had the sense to fire an aide, David Bossie (his chief investigator, no less), once it was revealed that it was Bossie who released “selected” transcripts of Webb Hubbell’s prison conversations.

Are Democrats today putting any pressure on John Boehner and/or Mitch McConnell to track down the person who gave ABC’s Jonathan Karl those now-infamous “quotes”? And where are our national media on this question? What Karl did was sloppy. What that person did was disgraceful. If we’re speaking of scandals, this should most certainly be one. It’s a hell of a lot worse than what Bossie did.

But no. And if somehow the quote doctor is revealed? She or he will have a column and a speaking gig at next year’s CPAC, both slots right alongside Bossie. Being right-wing means never having to say you’re sorry.