Master of the Universe

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Four weeks ago, when Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and did not receive an immediate pardon from George Bush, many of us hoped the president was letting justice take its course.

The case, you'll recall, grew out of a plan by the Vice President's office to leak to reporters damaging information about a prominent Bush critic and his wife, a CIA officer.

But yesterday, Bush spared Libby from a stint behind bars, with the explanation that the sentence was "excessive."

Many columnists are saying that Bush's act has served to perpetuate his reputation as a chief executive who values loyalty above the rule of law and who routinely fails to hold even the most underhanded and incompetent officials accountable for their actions.

Just think of Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet and Alberto Gonzalez, who give new meaning to the word inept. We'll get to Cheney in a minute.

The commutation of Libby's sentence drew a sharp response from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who was quoted in The New York Times as saying that an experienced federal judge "imposed a sentence consistent with the applicable laws."

On The Times's Web site today, readers were almost uniformly opposed to Bush's decision.

"Not for the first time, Bush has disgraced his oath, his office, and his country," Michael Johnston wrote. "To say that he governs by banana republic methods is an insult to bananas everywhere. What a tin-pot fraud."

Another reader, David Owens, called the commutation a "transparently hypocritical act."

"Previously I held out the hope that Bush was making very bad choices, that he was not evil, but ‘only' very, very stupid."

But Leonard Wolfenstein countered that Libby "was just the fall guy for Cheney anyway."

"Cheney is the real criminal, who has flouted the law and done huge damage to our country. He needs to be behind bars for much longer than 30 months."

That view was similar to some of the reaction to a four-part series in The Washington Post last week about Cheney. The stories, by Jo Becker and Barton Gellman, lay out in detail the excesses of Cheney's tenure, everything from his insistence on skirting the Geneva Convention to his efforts to forego environmental laws in favor of big business.

The Post said Cheney "has found a ready patron in George W. Bush for edge-of-the-envelope views on executive supremacy that previous presidents did not assert."

But, as Frank Rich pointed out in Sunday's New York Times, the Post's "first-rate" stories about Cheney's abuses of power come too late in the game.

Rich quoted a Post reader's comment that the revelations were "four years late and billions of dollars short."

Such complaints, Rich wrote, "reflect the bitter legacy of much of the Washington press's failure to penetrate the hyping of prewar intelligence and, later, the import of the Fitzgerald investigation."

"Another half-century could pass before Americans learn the full story of the secrets buried by Mr. Cheney and his boss to cover up their deceitful path to war."

It's possible that, in commuting Libby's sentence, Bush felt he had nothing left to lose.

In a Washington Post story yesterday, Peter Baker wrote that, at "the nadir of his presidency," Bush has "endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation."

"Burdened by an unrelenting war, challenged by an opposition Congress, defeated just last week on immigration, his last major domestic priority, Bush remains largely locked inside the fortress of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the seventh year of a presidency turned sour," Baker wrote.

"He still acts as if he were master of the universe, even if the rest of Washington no longer sees him that way."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

White House photo by Paul Morse



Nick Madigan