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My Country Or My Friend?

This column was written by Michael Tomasky.
E.M. Forster famously said that if he "had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

The novelist's quote, which I believe he delivered apropos the Cambridge spy quartet -- two of whom, Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, had been Cambridge Apostles, as Forster had in an earlier time -- is usually invoked approvingly as the gold standard to which all friendships should aspire.

But Forster didn't have the opportunity to watch George W. Bush and Karl Rove in action. The Cambridge ring did their damage in the service, however abysmally misguided, of an ideology that they thought would elevate mankind. What they did was worse from a legal perspective, but from a moral point of view, it was at least a matter of principle as they saw it.

The Bush White House, on the other hand, may not be guilty of treason, but it is acting on no principle other than power -- except maybe the principle of defending a lie that helped launch a disastrous war.

Nothing proves the point better than Bush's about-face on July 19, when he said that now a member of his administration will have to be proven to have committed a crime before a firing would be warranted.

This is stunningly different from what he said on June 10, 2004. Then, a reporter asked: "Do you still stand by what you said several months ago, a suggestion that it might be difficult to identify anybody who leaked the agent's name? And do you stand by your pledge to fire anyone found to have done so?" Bush replied: "Yes. And that's up to [Fitzgerald] to find the facts."

On Sunday, July 24, The Washington Post characterized the change as "small, but potentially very significant."

Well, they got the second part right. But "small?"

Excuse me, but if that change is "small," then recently acquitted Michael Jackson and Richard Scrushy need to be thrown in jail right now, and just-convicted Bernard Ebbers should be planning to travel around the world on his yacht. In what universe is the difference between preponderance of non-legal evidence (the 2004 standard) and legal conviction (the new one) "small"?

The change Bush made last week is, in fact, staggering. He knows full well that if there are indictments and if there are timely trials and if there are convictions and if those convictions are upheld on appeal, it'll be way past January 20, 2009 before it all happens. Rove will probably be able to work in Jeb Bush's White House, should fate deliver us into such unappeasable bad fortune, before the law catches up with him.

Bush has -- insert your preferred cliché -- moved the goal posts, changed the rules in the middle of the game. Whatever argot you prefer, he's done it. And yet, no great newspaper has said: No, Mr. President, this is unacceptable.

The Washington Post has taken a complete pass on the question. Its last editorial on the Rove matter ran on July 13 and was the usual jumble of tremulous equivocations and obvious platitudes, concluding with the stirring sentence: "For now, however, it remains to be established that such misconduct occurred." Ed Murrow, lookout!

The New York Times has been better than the Post, at least calling on Rove on July 13 to step forward and tell the truth. But the Times, too, has dodged Bush's shift so far.
What should these pages be doing? It isn't complicated and involves only a look at the record. Bush said in June 2004 that he would fire anyone found to be involved in leaking Plame's name. As a result of the Matt Cooper email and various background confirmations from various sources, we know for a fact that Rove has been found to be involved. QED.

The excuse for Rove and his apologists is that he may not have said her actual name (go back up a few grafs and read the wording of the June 2004 question). But if that's an excuse -- and under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, it is not -- then so is a debate about the meaning of the word "is."

Bush and Rove cannot be permitted to get away with this. Can you imagine the howling from the people now defending Rove if Bill Clinton had decided in mid-investigation that a previously announced standard for firing a staffer had suddenly changed -- to his and the staffer's benefit? It would have constituted an additional count of impeachment. And the editorial pages in question would have been howling (or Howelling, in the Times' case).

Forster may have had his priorities off when it comes to loyalties, but he was spot-on a lot of the time, as when he said this: "I distrust great men. They produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood, too, and I always feel a little man's pleasure when they come a cropper."

is The Prospect's executive editor.
By Michael Tomasky
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved