Scooter and Me

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

At a recent conference I attended, a betting pool was started -- whom would Fitzgerald indict, how many counts, how many charges? I didn't enter. I hadn't a clue what Fitzgerald would do.

But while I knew little about the Valerie Plame affair, I did have a pre-Iraq, pre-9/11 experience with Scooter Libby. My story suggests that the art of creating a virtual reality is one that Libby was practicing for the Administration long before Iraq, and long before a White House aide criticized "reality-based people" to the New York Times.

In the spring of 2001, the national crisis was energy -- only it was electricity, not gasoline, that dominated the headlines. Having not yet developed an aversion to the "blame game," the Bush administration was busy claiming that environmental opposition to new power plants had landed California in the blackout soup. Vice-President Cheney was heading up a secret Energy Task Force that in April released a report suggesting that if we only gave the oil and gas and nuclear industry everything they wanted, the lights would stay on. The Vice-President then went to Montreal and made his famous statement that "conservation might be a personal virtue," but that it couldn't serve as a national energy policy.

The Sierra Club responded by pointing out that we had actively supported every new power plant proposed in California for a decade, because they were much cleaner and more efficient than those they would replace. We posted a twelve-point energy plan -- based on conservation -- to get California out of its crisis, unaware that the crisis had actually been cooked up by Enron.

So far this was standard Bush administration playbook. Then things got odd. Polls showed that the Administration was being hurt by its coziness with big oil. The Vice-President's Montreal remarks were widely criticized. Californians started conserving. And Vice-President Cheney began to appear on national television shows asserting that the Bush administration's energy plan contained eleven of the Sierra Club's twelve energy planks. He did this repeatedly, even as we told the press that we thought it was nonsense. So finally we wrote to the White House saying, in effect, "We don't think so, but if you would like to incorporate some of our ideas in your energy policy, we would be glad to talk about it."

Scooter Libby called me to set up a meeting. I knew nothing about Libby, who turned me over to Mary Matalin to handle the details. (I had to call her at home on Sunday morning, which greatly displeased her husband, James Carville.) We invited several other environmental groups to join us, and I flew to DC for my first and only White House meeting of the Bush years. We met in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing. Cheney joined Libby and three other White House policy staff for the first half hour of the meeting. He told us that the Administration was on the verge of taking mandatory steps to curb global warming emissions (they still haven't), that they were genuinely open to efficiency and renewables as a part of the energy- policy solution (they weren't), and that he looked forward to an ongoing dialogue (I had no second meeting).

Then Libby asked us why we thought our vision was not contained in the Cheney Task Force policies. He pointed to the pages that mentioned energy conservation and renewables. One of my colleagues said, "Well, they are mentioned. But if you look at the analytic tables, you aren't expecting them to contribute anything substantial. Your administration is relying entirely on fossils and nuclear to meet our future energy needs." He opened one page of the Task Force report (which the Administration had printed at a cost of $135,000 drawn from the meager federal solar-energy budget) to illustrate his point. A White House aide said, "Well, these documents are not our policy. They are the status quo." (The second statement was true.)

Virtual reality having been established, the meeting wound up shortly thereafter. We walked out of the White House -- right into a gaggle of reporters and cameras, a feature that Libby had not arranged for any of the previous meetings he had scheduled for Enron, Exxon, or Peabody Coal. (In fact, the White House spent almost four years in court arguing the public had no right to any information at all about the Cheney Task Force.) But Scooter, it turned out, was more than happy to have the press know that the Vice-President had met with the Sierra Club. All we could tell the reporters was that we had just had a surreal experience in which the White House had told us, in effect, that its Energy Task Force policy wasn't really its policy, that the Report wasn't really the Report, and that everything might be reopened, and that we hoped they meant it. (They didn't.)

Libby, of course, could not have anticipated 9/11 that spring, or the need to create a virtual reality to justify going to war in Iraq a year later. But looking back it seems clear to me that the whole odd episode -- from the Vice-President's claim that he had embraced 11 of the Sierra Club's energy planks to his staff's calm assurances that the voluminous documents published as the report of the Cheney Energy Task Force were not really the Administration's proposals after all -- were a kind of unconscious dress rehearsal for the much more serious play-acting to come.

Very few Americans, after all, were fooled into thinking that Cheney had really embraced energy efficiency or renewables. Scooter Libby's skilled if brazen orchestration of our meeting certainly didn't fool the environmental movement. Cheney did get away with it, in the sense that there was little outcry from the media. But no one died as a result of this stage management.

Looking back, I wonder whether their success with this and other capers reinforeced the belief ofLibby, and perhaps his boss, that reality really isn't important-- all that matters are appearances and assertions. Sadly, for our nation, for Iraq, and now for Scooter, that's just not so.