Haven’t we seen this movie before? Something bad happens involving agents of the Administration in power. High ranking staffers then try to cover up the malfeasance, adding to the problem by lying under oath, which is perjury. A special prosecutor gathers evidence, organizes a grand jury, secures indictments, and wins the grim verdict: guilty.
Yes. We’ve seen this movie over and over again.
Today the name of the convicted perjurer is Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to the vice president of the United States. Mr. Libby apparently didn’t see the movie starring characters like H.R. Haldeman, John Mitchell, John Erlichman — high ranking staffers to President Richard Nixon starring in a movie called Watergate. Didn’t he see the movie about the tawdry impeachment trial of a President named Clinton who lied about having an affair with an intern? How many versions of the same ancient story can be told?
The trial and conviction is never about the “third rate burglary” or the cheap sex or any of the other scandalous acts that start the film rolling. No, the trial is almost always about the lie — the cover-up, the perjury, the intense effort to hide the truth.
What did Scooter Libby lie about? He denied and made false statements about how and what he knew about a leak of a CIA agent’s identity, Valerie Plame. The agent happened to be the wife of Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who became a critic of the Iraq war at a very early time. The accusation was that someone in the Bush Administration leaked Ms. Plame’s identity in retaliation for her husband’s criticism fo the war, and Mr. Libby lied to cover-up the source of the leak, or perhaps to cover-up his own role in the leak. Leaking a CIA agent’s identity is a crime. Mr. Libby, however, was not convicted of that crime, but rather, of lying about facts related to the leak.
Lies always come back, like boomerangs. Rather than spending his latter years writing memoirs of his public service, now it seems that Scooter Libby might possible spend some portion of his years in prison. All for lying about what happened.
Of course, the tragedy of Scooter Libby has many more implications — the question of whether he truly took the hit for his boss, the quagmire of Iraq, the unraveling of the current Administration as the next election looms. Pundits and advocates and critics and defenders will deconstruct and reconstruct their arguments and theories for years, conflating Scootergate and Watergate and so many other misadventures of the powerful.
But my interest is less about the politics and more about the ethics: are remakes of old movies inevitable?
At Trinity, we value our Honor System as a method to teach students about the fundamental values of integrity and honor in the community. We need this somewhat old-fashioned methodology because we live in a culture that accepts deception as normal, that assumes deceit in so many transactions, that even sometimes rewards clever liars with celebrity status. How can we teach about honor when the liar is often exalted?
Sometimes, it takes a bad headline.
Sometimes, the best lesson about Truth is found in the consequences of lies.