Picking Scooter's Peers

Six Degrees of Scooter Libby
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 17 2007 7:56 PM

Picking Scooter's Peers

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You'd think it would be hard to find a pool of jurors untainted by any connection to Scooter Libby. First, his name is Scooter, and as one juror pointed out today during the second day of voir dire, "you don't forget a name like Scooter." Second, everyone in Washington knows everyone, even if their name is John Smith. If you don't know a person directly, your new baby sitter once took care of her kids, or your mechanic says he works on his car, too, or your cousin is the security guard at her building. So, it was surprising that the first dozen potential jurors quizzed in the Scooter Libby trial were somehow completely unconnected to Libby and even more amazing that none had even a remote relationship to any of the 80 names the judge said would be mentioned during the trial. No one had run-ins with famous Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, to whom Plame's name was leaked. No one had sat on a bar stool next to Tim Russert to watch a Buffalo Bills game or genuflected with him in church. Next time someone says "It's a small world," I'm going to put them straight.

But then came Juror No. 1869. Where other jurors said they didn't read the newspaper, this middle-aged man said he read it cover to cover every day. He not only knew journalists, he had been one for much of his professional career. In fact, Bob Woodward had been his editor at the Washington Post. He also knew Post reporter Walter Pincus, another name on the list. Oh, and Tim Russert? They used to be neighbors. His son played basketball with Tim's son in the alley between their houses. He had gone to grade school with Maureen Dowd.  (Apparently this is the guy everyone in Washington knows.)

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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For the next hour, lawyers for both the prosecution and defense turned the man around in their hands like a Rubik's Cube. Unbidden, he offered a view about memory that was straight from the Libby team's playbook. "Memory is a funny thing," he said. "I've been wrong and other people have been wrong. I'm skeptical about everything until I see it backed up." Would he be predisposed to believing testimony from Bob Woodward above all others? "Let's face it—he's written two books about Iraq," said the man. "One contradicted the other in some ways. He was obviously wrong in some ways. I think he's capable of being human and wrong." Lawyers for both sides pressed and pressed on his impartiality until he turned into an evangelist for the profession: "One thing about being a newspaper reporter all those years, one thing that has always been important to me, was getting it right, checking all the facts. … One thing that [Woodward] drilled into all of us is that don't take anyone's word until you get the facts." To not judge the case fairly would "go against everything he taught us. I would find it shameful."

Attaboy, No. 1869. Libby's defense team relies on a far different view of the press and its sense of duty. They're hoping to convince jurors that the press is sloppy and that several of the members involved in the case who will contradict Libby's version of events have agendas and threadbare memories.

Jury selection was temporarily interrupted when a woman who had made it past the first day's questioning on Tuesday asked to speak to the judge. A cleaning lady who works in the Watergate complex, she explained that her employer would not pay her if she participated in the trial. "I wouldn't mind serving at all. It's just I have to look at my finances," said the young African-American woman. The judge called her employer, confirmed her story, and let her go. Tuesday, Libby's lawyers tried to challenge her inclusion because under questioning she seemed to suggest that since the defendant was indicted, he was already guilty. But as she walked out of the courtroom, she looked at Libby and whispered "good luck."

Libby's lawyers continued to press potential jurors about their views on the controversy over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and their opinions of the Bush administration. Most people said they either hadn't paid enough attention or didn't know enough to make a call. The bulk of them showed such equanimity and fair-mindedness about weighing all the facts and Libby's presumption of innocence that it made you want to sing a hymn for the judicial system. There were a couple who said they could not put aside their negative feelings about the Bush administration and were dismissed, but Day 2 saw the first Bush defender, a woman whose husband is serving in Iraq.

After watching today's procession, it occurred to me that people inside the Beltway (a precondition for service) are far more normal than they get credit for. Not all are politically obsessed wonks. Based on their answers, it appears that no one in Washington watches Meet the Press. One woman in her 30s called herself "a master of pop culture but nothing that has to do with current events that have to do with responsible adult things." When asked if he read the newspapers, an older African-American man said, "No sir; I only read the Bible." Another woman buys them only for the Sudoku puzzles. One woman had been a hotel maid for 30 years, another had played guitar in a bar and a man had driven a cab for a year and a half in New York. This is what Survivor would be like if the contestants didn't have to be good-looking.

The questioning about jobs and family run-ins with the law opened interesting little windows into their lives. One woman was dating a felon, while one man was being treated with methadone (he was excused). The lawyers tried to stitch little bonds with the jurors they'll potentially have to appeal to. Twice it went horribly wrong for Libby's men. When talking about faulty memories, Ted Wells said to a middle-aged woman that he bet it was the husband who was always wrong, presumably bonding over the idea that women always find their husbands pigheaded. No, she said, that wasn't the case. Libby's other lawyer asked a middle-aged man: "Did your wife ever say, 'I told you that'?" He took on an annoying voice, presumably bonding over the idea that women are hectoring shrews. The gentleman replied: "I don't have one of those."

A retired teacher from North Carolina was the star of the day. He'd moved to Washington to receive treatment for a debilitating illness. (I know more about him, but the judge says we're not supposed to make jurors identifiable.) Jurors get quite chatty under questioning, and this man explained that he finds it hard to watch television because his grandchildren regularly interrupt. His told us about his wife. "I call her the bionic woman," he said before listing the many surgeries she'd endured recently. "She has a lot of bad joints but a pure gold heart." Asked about the president, he became Gen. Shinseki: "I don't always agree with his Iraq policy. If  it were me making the decision I would have gone in with 500,000 troops to make sure we had all bases covered."

What was his opinion of Dick Cheney? "I'm not sure of his health as serving vice president with his heart, and I'm not sure I would like to go bird-hunting with him, either." Nearly everyone in the courtroom laughed. Libby put his head in his hand and smiled. Patrick Fitzgerald, a Joe Friday type, did not smile. His staff kept straight faces, too. Before the man left the witness stand he showed the judge pictures of his grandchildren.

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