The coverup worked

The American people didn't know the truth about the CIA leak on the first Tuesday in November last year. Will they know any more in November 2008?

Published November 1, 2005 5:08PM (EST)

Today is the first Tuesday in November. That doesn't count for much this year, but it did last year. On the first Tuesday in November 2004, the American people reelected George W. Bush.

What did they know then? On the question of whether the White House had revealed the identity of a CIA agent in order to undercut criticism of the Iraq war, not much. The president had suggested that he didn't know who had leaked Valerie Plame's identity, and he had promised to fire anyone who did. Scott McClellan had assured the American people that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby weren't involved, and he said that the president knew -- at least so far as Rove was concerned -- that it was ridiculous to say otherwise. Reporters for Time and the New York Times knew Rove and Libby had been involved, but they kept that knowledge to themselves as voters went to the polls and reelected a president a year ago today.

There's a short way to say that, and E.J. Dionne nails it today:

"The coverup worked."

As Dionne notes, Patrick Fitzgerald suggested at his press conference Friday that his investigation might have been completed in October 2004 rather than October 2005 if Time's Matthew Cooper and the Times' Judy Miller had testified when they first received subpoenas. In other words, the American public might have learned a month before Bush was reelected, rather than a year later, that members of his administration had outed a CIA agent for political gain and had lied about it afterward.

Would it have made a difference? The election was still up for grabs in October, and Bush ultimately beat John Kerry by just three percentage points. Would voters have been swayed by a story that went straight at Bush's strong suit, one that undercut his reputation for honesty and his role as a wartime president? Maybe. On the other hand, in polls taken last month -- after weeks and weeks of damaging revelations -- roughly a third of the Americans asked said they'd never heard of Scooter Libby or Karl Rove. Could revelations about them have changed an election?

The answer is, we'll never know. We're all like Fitzgerald's umpire, trying to figure out what might have happened if somebody hadn't thrown sand in our eyes. What we do know is that Bush was reelected, that he's the one making decisions about Iraq and nominating Supreme Court justices, and that he gets to keep doing it for another 1,175 days.

So we can talk all we want about the damage that has been done to the Bush administration. We can demand answers from McClellan, as the White House press corps did yesterday. We can demand answers from Dick Cheney, as Nicholas Kristof does today. We can wait and watch to see whether Fitzgerald's investigation really continues and whether Rove ever ends up in his net.

In the meantime, Bush will be the president of the United States. The coverup worked. And if Dionne is right, it will keep working right through the first Tuesday in November three years from now. Fitzgerald can keep pushing for evidence that might implicate Rove, Cheney or even the president himself. But so long as Bush is sitting in the Oval Office, Scooter Libby and his colleagues can keep throwing sand, hopeful that a grateful president will grant them pardons on his way out the door.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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