Joe Conason's Journal

The political appointee prosecuting Moussaoui. Plus: Christopher Hitchens leaves, the Nation mourns. And everyone seems to forget his earlier "peacenik" ways.

By Salon Staff
September 28, 2002 12:10AM (UTC)
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FUBAR in the rocket docket
A Washington lawyer points out that the U.S. attorney responsible for the government handing over those four dozen highly sensitive, classified documents to Zacarias Moussaoui by mistake is emphatically not a career prosecutor. In fact, Paul McNulty appears to be the very definition of a political appointee, selected by Bush and Ashcroft to oversee Virginia's "rocket docket" -- the district just across the Potomac from the capital where Ken Starr always went to get his way. McNulty's résumé includes stints on the staffs of House Majority Leader Dick Armey and the House impeachment managers. He has helped to write criminal statutes but appears to have little case experience. Oh, he was also an "advisor to the Bush campaign" and helped prepare the attorney general for those grueling confirmation hearings. Is a patronage appointee like McNulty the best lawyer to prosecute sensitive cases like Moussaoui? Will he be fired or disciplined for this massive, potentially dangerous screw-up? Here's a hint: Both questions have the same answer.

Beyond satire
If I had read Neal Pollack first, I might not have bothered to write anything about Hitchens. Or Sullivan. Or any of their ilk. What more can I say? Pollack is simply America's finest conservative essayist, although it isn't clear whether he really exists.
[4:11 p.m. PDT, Sept. 27, 2002]


You don't need a weathervane
His disappointed friends at the Nation cannot truly say they were surprised by the curt, graceless manner with which Christopher Hitchens took his leave of them after more than 20 years. For him, these colleagues, who literally treated him as family, are just human props for whatever pose he decides to strike. It isn't the first time he has betrayed people who were kind to him.

For quite a while, Hitchens has slapped the Nation editors around like a wife who can be abused with impunity; and that is how they've reacted to every blow, even after the door slammed behind him for the last time. Whether he calls them "lying servants of power" or useful stooges of bin Laden, they only praise him and plead for more. It has been a spectacle of domestic humiliation, never easy to watch.

On a cheerier note, however, his departure provides an occasion to review past posturing in the glare of his recent epiphany. There is no point in seeking insight in his latest effusions about Iraq, which are about as nuanced as "axis of evil." He should feel quite comfortable among the former Trotksyists in the neo-con war room. The former internationalist isn't quite ready to tell the United Nations to shove it, but he is heading in that direction.


Meanwhile, let's take a quick, nostalgic glance at the archives. What they show is Hitchens behaving precisely like the sort of muddled "peacenik" he now derides.

In October 1990, he actually argued that rather than be driven out of Kuwait by force, Saddam ought to be awarded territorial concessions negotiated by the international community. "Of course, the air at once fills with cries that aggression must not be rewarded, that appeasement must not be tolerated and so forth. However, it would be criminal if war began without some effort being made to broker what is after all a longstanding dispute ..."

He went on to identify the main threat, which wasn't the Iraqi arsenal or the aggressive madman in Baghdad: "The danger at the moment is that President Bush ... will seek to overthrow Saddam and also to create some permanent nexus of alliances in the region. It would be fascinating to know if he has any idea who ought to run Iraq and it would also be interesting to know how long he would commit himself to the task." That latter question is still pertinent. But nowadays, Hitchens despises anyone who would make such inquiries as "vacillating," "morally neutral" or worse -- possibly a Nation reader.


By late February 1991, he had charted the imperialist designs of the war, as he informed viewers of "Crossfire": "I believe that President Bush will do many stupid things in order to avoid looking stupid. He has said this is a fight against Hitlerism. He's put his entire credibility on knocking Saddam Hussein off his perch. He's trying to show what we say goes, America is the only super power, it will control the resources and governments of the Gulf and the Middle East."

On that same broadcast, he berated Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for taking the president's word about Desert Storm's aims. "You're a senator and if you're elected to take the government at his [sic] word, why do we need senators?" barked Hitchens. "Who needs a senator? Just send in your postcard, 'I back the President.' I mean, it's pathetic."


Insisting with his usual blustering certainty that Bush intended to depose Saddam and install a puppet government in Baghdad, Hitchens was soon proved completely wrong, of course. But although unfairly applied to McCain, the Hitchens complaint about senators who blindly underwrite war without assessing its consequences was prescient. Today, however, he wants to hear no such questioning.

A couple of years later, in a C-SPAN Booknotes interview, he mocked the wartime pretensions of the president: "Bush throughout that whole war and especially in the run up to it constantly compared himself to Churchill ... In the Senate debate for and against the war, the Churchill-Munich analogy was used more often even than Vietnam as a test of which side you were on. I wondered why it is in the United States people are such pushovers for this English mythology."

But, he continued, "there was no way, however it was sliced, that Bush could come off as Churchill, as we now know. As a lot of us guessed at the time, the war with Saddam Hussein was a quarrel that had broken out between two business partners, Bush and Hussein, who were fighting over the spoils. They wanted to involve everyone else in it, and they wanted it to sound noble. They fooled a lot of people for some of the time, but the disillusionment with that war and the rhetoric with which it was fought is now pretty near total."


That interview with the gentle Brian Lamb also included his assessments of two "rogues" whose political shifts elicited his scorn. Paul Johnson he described as "probably the classic instance of the guy who, having lost his faith, believes that he's found his reason, in other words, a defector." But he was even tougher on P.J. O'Rourke, who "gets away, in my opinion, with murder." Why? "He's another ex-leftist, '60s radical dropout ... Then saw the light, put on a collar and tie and became a young Republican and has been cashing in this chip ever since."

Further comment would be superfluous except to paraphrase the poet: You don't need a weathervane to know which way the snitch blows.

Worm on the hook
Yesterday's bulletin on the ABC News site about Iowa was evidently correct. Tom Harkin has hired an attorney to investigate his campaign staff's misconduct, while his opponents now claim to have identified the man who taped their fundraising meeting.


He is said to be a Des Moines businessman who worked for Harkin briefly more than 25 years ago. Republicans, though, still haven't explained why a man who donated $50 and signed a volunteer card was invited, by direct mail, to their "private strategy" meeting.
[1:50 p.m. PDT, Sept. 27, 2002]

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