The GOP vs. nepotism?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Oct. 1 2003 8:25 PM

The GOP vs. Nepotism?

The White House leakers didn't grasp that, to conservatives, "nepotism" is no longer a dirty word.

At the heart of the Valerie Plame affair lies an unexamined mystery. What, precisely, did the White House's two phantom leakers think they were accomplishing by telling Robert Novak that their nemesis, Joseph C. Wilson IV, was married to a Central Intelligence Agency specialist on "weapons of mass destruction" who'd recommended that the CIA send Wilson to Niger to check out allegations that Iraq had purchased uranium there? The phantom leakers were so excited about Wilson's Plame connection that they called "at least six Washington journalists" to tell them about it, according to a "senior administration official" quoted by Mike Allen and Dana Priest in the Sept. 28 Washington Post. "Clearly," said the official, "it was meant purely and simply for revenge."

Yes, revenge would be the motive. Wilson's now-famous July 6 op-ed helped establish that when Bush said in his State of the Union address, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," he knew (or ought to have known) that the British government was wrong. The dishonesty of this assertion was so great that the Bush administration, in an unprecedented move, fessed up to it. The White House was humiliated. For that, Wilson had to pay.

The White House leaks apparently did bring harm—not to Wilson but to his wife, whose cover has been blown. Precisely how much harm this caused her won't be known until we have a better idea of what she did for the CIA. (In Newsday, Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce reported that Plame worked undercover until her identity was revealed by Novak. Novak says she was "working under the guise of another agency" but only as an analyst.) Were the White House leaks intended to slap down Plame as a way to get back at Wilson? Chatterbox has entertained this thought. But to believe that was the intention, we also have to believe that the leakers knew that Plame depended at least to some extent on keeping her CIA employment secret. And if the leakers knew that, they surely had some sense that what they were doing compromised national security and violated the law. Is it likely they would be so deliberately reckless?

More likely, Chatterbox thinks, is that the White House leakers (let's call them WHLs) were trying to expose Wilson as a flake by revealing that he got the Niger assignment through nepotism. To a certain mind-set, the notion that a man would depend on his wife to find work for him would be an unspeakable humiliation. Did Norman Maine let Esther Blodgett use her influence to get him one more movie role? Hell, no! He kept his dignity and marched into the sea. (Chatterbox should here point out that Novak reported in his original column that the CIA denied that Plame suggested Wilson for the job; she merely passed along the CIA's invitation. The WHLs apparently believed otherwise.)

But the WHLs were sadly mistaken if they thought a nepotism accusation would discredit Wilson. Their most obvious oversight was that they work for George W. Bush, who didn't exactly pull himself up by his bootstraps. "Given the number of family appointees in the Bush administration," observes Adam Bellow, author of In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History, "I would consider it highly inconsistent to start pointing the finger at anyone's family ties." At least three of these nepotism hires came to grief. Janet Rehnquist left her job as inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department shortly before the General Accounting Office reported that she'd kept a gun in her office (the District of Columbia bans firearms possession); "exhibited [other] serious lapses in judgment"; and "fostered an atmosphere of anxiety and distrust." Labor unions muscled Eugene Scalia out of his job as acting solicitor at the Labor Department because of his opposition to regulating ergonomics. And Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, risks seeing a high-profile decision to ease rules on media ownership overturned by the Republican-controlled Congress. (For additional examples of nepotism hires in the Bush administration, see this Atlantic Monthly excerpt from Bellow's book.)

If the WHLs were crying "nepotism," they made the additional mistake of being out of touch with the newest conservative thinking about nepotism, as laid out by Bellow (a self-described neoconservative and the son of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow) in his widely praised book. Nepotism, Bellow argues, is by and large good, or at least inevitable. It strengthens family ties, propels the creation of wealth, and provides a necessary check on the barbarities of unchecked meritocracy. Can't those baboons in the Bush White House read?

If the WHLs' version of the Plame-Wilson story is true, Bellow told Chatterbox, then Plame

was trying to do right by her country and her spouse by proposing her husband for this assignment. Judging from his résumé, he was not a bad candidate. And [because of his liberal politics] he would have been a quite credible source if he'd found anything to support the administration's case. … If I were her supervisor, I would have said, "Hey, not a bad idea."

Now, says Bellow, it's "turned out to be something that she may have regretted." But Chatterbox suspects the White House regrets it a lot more.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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