One cheer, but no more than two, for George W. Bush.
He spared Scooter Libby from prison, as decency demanded, but left intact a $250,000 fine, which can only be regarded as tribute to the venality of a special prosecutor and the vanity of a federal judge (both lawyers, after all).
"I respect the jury's verdict," the president said, announcing the clemency. "But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison."
What's excessive here is the president's caution. He said the expected things about respecting the jury's verdict and, by implication, the "need" for Mr. Libby to pay the fine and remain on probation. But if the prison sentence was excessive, so is the fine and the probation. The jury and even the court is entitled to respect, but its verdict is not. The verdict was wrong, harsh and vindictive, and in a perfect world the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago, would be cited for misfeasance of office and Judge Reggie Walton would be cited for excessive concern for the professional reputation of a prosecutor watching his ambition about to swirl down a particularly public toilet.
The commutation was all anyone should expect from a Republican president, afflicted, as Republicans invariably are, by extravagant indulgence of daintiness and delicacy. It's in the DNA. By saving Mr. Libby from prison but leaving in place the rest of a sentence reeking of rotten politics, the president enables the destruction of a reputation and the imposition of a cruel fine. If the president set out to redress a miscarriage of justice, the halfway measure of a commutation looks, as his Democratic critics are already saying, like cynical politics. The president's political advisers should have taken to heart the first rule of politicians and philandering husbands: If you're going to be hanged for stealing a goat, you might as well take a sheep.
The baying of the Democratic critics began at once. Barack Obama, decrying, as is his wont, partisanship and divisive politics, rushed out (as is another wont) to practice his talent for divisive partisanship. "This decision to commute the sentence of a man who compromised our national security cements the legacy of an administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division."
This will be the Democratic mantra. Hillary won't be far behind, and as soon as he can mooch a quarter from the shampoo girl John Edwards will call from the beauty shop, eager to add a tinny voice to the chorus.
Mr. Obama has been having a little trouble lately keeping his stories straight, and unless he is deliberately trying to mislead he got this one wrong, too. If anyone compromised "national security" by "outing" Valerie Plame as Mata Hari, it was not Scooter Libby. The special prosecutor knew all along that it was Richard L. Armitage, another government functionary, who had "outed" Valerie at the CIA, except that she was not really a covert agent, anyway, and even if she had been the law protecting covert agents did not actually apply to her. (Nobody's perfect.)
After spending millions "investigating" a Washington fantasy and searching vainly for a crime, Mr. Fitzgerald had to have something to show. Scooter Libby was standing nearby. Rarely has Washington seen a more brazen railroad job. The judge could have derailed the train; na´ve citizens no doubt imagine that such a derailment is a judge's sworn duty, but anyone who has ever spent as much as a day at a courthouse knows how lawyers take care of each other.
George W.'s commutation, and not a pardon, will be taken by the friends who have not deserted him as the work not of a stand-up guy, but a well-meaning halfway-up guy. Fred Thompson was the first to apply the needle. "I have long advocated a pardon," he said last night, "but I respect the president's decision."
Since he has nowhere to go but up, the commutation puts only the president's legacy at risk. With his 29 percent favorability rating George W. had been closing in on Harry Truman's 23 percent, a mark that has stood for more than a half-century. Eclipsing that mark is the only legacy available. Redressing a particularly odious miscarriage of justice, even reluctantly and timidly done, might lift him out of Mr. Truman's neighborhood. Too bad. He coulda been a contender.