If I were studying sociology or anthropology I'd drop everything right now and run to Washington, DC. There's a great piece to be written about what Scooter Libby's defenders reveal about that city's power elite. (Think Mean Girls meets All the President's Men.) What an opportunity: The response to a perceived attack on one of the tribe is revealing a hidden culture to the world.
Social scientists will tell you that most communities are divided into at least two groups, insiders and interlopers. Washington is no exception. "He came in and trashed the place," David Broder famously wrote of Bill Clinton, "and it wasn't his place." It's Scooter Libby's place, though. He's part of the capital's power elite, a culture with its own social hierarchy, folkways, and shared beliefs.
Anthropologists are fond of drawing "kinship charts" that document relationships and hierarchies within a tribe or community. A Washington "kinship chart" would show that the consanguineal loyalties of biological family have been replaced by webs of social intimacy and shared perceptions.
At the top of the DC chart are the designated leaders, the chieftains. The best way to get there is to have occupied a place in the hierarchy for a long time, after working your way up as apprentice to an earlier chief. A history of senior positions in past administrations fits the bill, hence the prominence of figures like Cheney and Rumsfeld. That's why in some ways Cheney holds more totemic power in Washington than does Bush himself.
On the next line down come those who draw their power from the top-line leaders. That's where Scooter comes in, as a Cheney acolyte. That's where Mary Matalin shows up, too, as a long-time operative for Republican administrations. The law school professors who authored a brief challenging the special prosecutor in the Libby case appear on this line, too. They represent a long line of interest groups, think tanks, and academic institutions who benefit from the largesse of the top-line hierarchy through grants of power, funding, and/or support for cherished causes.
Newspaper publishers hold top-line status based on the institutions they control, while the writers and commentators who work for them appear several layers down in the chart. On a practical level, the ability of these writers to survive professionally depends on the favors bestowed on them from their social superiors in government and the media. On a personal level, they identify emotionally with the tribe and react violently when any of its leaders are under attack.
This group's folkways are reinforced every day. Their kids go to the same schools. They go to the same restaurants and clubs. Their intimacy's been ritually celebrated at a thousand cocktail parties, with wine and hors d'oeuvres as the unconsecrated host. And judging from what we've heard lately, it seems that excoriating unruly outsiders (whether they're bloggers, Bill Clinton, or uncooperative voters) has replaced the ritual eating of an enemy's heart.
Maybe that's why writers like Richard Cohen can so casually commit what seems to be journalistic malpractice when writing about the Libby case. For example, no matter how many times Patrick Fitzgerald repeats his belief that an underlying crime was committed in the Libby case, Cohen and his fellows will keep saying that Fitzgerald's asserted no such thing. Why such misdirection, which appears to violate the Society of Professional Journalists' written code of ethics? And now Cohen seems to be asserting that a Republican prosecutor and Republican judge are conducting a leftist show trial in retaliation for the war in Iraq.
That sort of twisted logic isn't unusual among Libby defenders. Why do people who are often smart thinkers and good writers allow themselves to bend the rules of logic and ethics in defense of someone like Libby? Because people who do deceitful things often believe that they're obeying a higher ethical law. Often they're not even conscious of doing anything wrong. So when the Richard Cohens of the world repeatedly misstate the facts, one can only conclude that their belief in Libby's "decency" and the "unfairness" of the prosecution allows them to ignore both good journalism and the national good.
Tribe members consider Libby a decent public servant tricked by inquisitors into perjuring himself. Most other Americans recognize him for what he really is: a convict who convinced a Republican prosecutor and judge - and an entire jury - of his criminality, beyond a reasonable doubt.
That's the problem. Sometimes the pull of cultural beliefs is so strong that people can't even see facts that threaten their shared reality. I would guess that no journalist or pundit working in DC today - not Cohen, not Joe Klein, not David Broder - believes they are doing anything other than upholding their professional principles and serving the nation. That's why they can't react to challenges without indignation, rage, or distortion: Those challenges undermine their shared reality, so the challengers must be personally attacked instead. Their identity becomes the topic. The result? Outsiders such as bloggers become the enemy tribe. The fact that these outsiders don't obey the group's social conventions only amplifies the outrage.
Mary Matalin's letter on behalf of Libby (co-signed by her husband James Carville) is an especially useful vein for reserchers in search of DC folklore. "His wife and my husband share similar (presumably centrist Democratic) political views," Matalin writes. This speaks to "bipartisanship," a so-far mythical political movement extolled by Broder and others. Bipartisanship remains attractive to members of the insider group because it places greater importance on tribal standing than on heartfelt political values.
"Our service put great strains on our respective families," writes Ms. Matalin. This echoes a common theme in many of Mr. Libby's letters of support, which emphasizes the bonding ritual of long hours spent working in the corridors of power.
But it is in speaking of children that Ms. Matalin best articulates the folkways and loyalties of the DC tribe. She writes movingly of Libby's attempts to entertain children isolated in a "secure undisclosed location" one Halloween, and asks the judge to consider "what further justice would be served by additional devastation to them and the many other children who love Scooter."
This shouldn't need to be said, but let's be clear: Nobody wants Libby's children or their friends to suffer. It's tough to be the child of a felon. What I find striking about the Matalin letter is not its tender concern for children, which is admirable, but the underlying amorality shown by its inability to see the suffering of Valerie Plame Wilson's children or the many others hurt by Libby's actions. Those children are simply less real to her. Out of sight, out of mind. That's Ms. Matalin's problem, and it's Cohen's too.
Libby's lawyer reportedly tried to block the release of the letters written on his behalf by Matalin and such top-line chieftains as Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld. His argument was that their publication would subject their authors to scorn and ridicule, especially by that hostile tribe known as "bloggers." Maybe, but I'm more concerned about making sure they're available to be catalogued, studied, and understood.
The underground folkways and practices of this particular tribe may not be this visible again for years. Graduate students, take note. This is your chance to study a culture that's rarely observed in the field. The more it's exposed to the light of day, the more it will be robbed of its power.
Any takers? It would be a good way to write your thesis - and help your country at the same time.