Walter Shapiro's Rough Rules for Responsible Mongering

I have been commenting on Washington scandals for nearly four decades—ever since the dead-drunk Wilbur Mills, the unduly lionized chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was stopped by the police in the middle of the night accompanied by a stripper, Fanny Foxe, who immediately dove into the Tidal Basin.

As a national columnist rather than a reporter, I never uncovered epic misdeeds in high places. But once a scandal hit the headlines, I rode with the lynch mob.

I was there for the kerfuffle known as “Debate-gate,” when it was belatedly revealed that a Jimmy Carter briefing book had been stolen before his 1980 face-off with Ronald Reagan. And I still cringe with a bit of embarrassment over all the times I went on television during the Bill Clinton impeachment saga to wildly speculate about who might have been the original author of the mysterious legal “talking points” that Monica Lewinsky gave Linda Tripp.

But over the years I have picked up a dollop of journalistic perspective. Many scandals have an awkward habit of not playing out exactly how political partisans expect them to. For example, it turns out that Valerie Plame was originally “outed” as a CIA agent not by Karl Rove or Scooter Libby, but by a supposed Washington good guy, Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s deputy.

As Barack Obama suddenly faced a three-front fight last week (Benghazi, the IRS, and the seizure of phone records from The Associated Press), I appreciated how hard it is to be a columnist in the midst of what was routinely called “the worst week of his presidency.” At moments like this, anyone slinging opinions for a living is totally dependent on the reporting of others. How do you make sense of things as a commentator when the tumbrels are rolling towards the guillotine but everything you know is second-hand?

So here, as a public service, are my Rough Rules for Responsible Scandal Mongers:

Avoid Over-Hyped Historical Analogies. Likening every scandal to Watergate or Iran-contra is akin to equating every disappointing movie with Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate. Maybe someday the nation will be confronted with another lawless paranoid president or have to deal with a Marine colonel conducting a rogue foreign policy out of the White House basement. But until then, leave the exaggerated worst-crime-in-human-history references to metaphor-challenged politicians bloviating on cable TV news.

Ask the Right Questions. The most useful Watergate catchphrase remains Howard Baker’s, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Still, a president can also create a set of attitudes within his own administration that can lead to abuses without direct involvement or knowledge from the Oval Office.

To clarify my own thinking, I have been working on my own list of the most apt questions for the current scandal-rama:

Would, for example, Benghazi have been handled differently if the deaths in Libya had not occurred in the midst of the fall presidential campaign?

If the IRS’s zeal in singling out Tea Party groups was solely the result of disarray and incompetence, why hadn’t the president done anything to reform the agency during his first term?

And, finally, why has the Obama administration consistently departed from every norm in Washington about the way you treat the media’s role in a leak investigation?

These are not perfect questions. But they do provide a framework to assess the administration’s culpability without resorting to partisan hysteria.

Documents Trump Blind Quotes and Anonymous Sources. This is not to belittle investigative reporters who have to operate with shadowy sourcing, especially when national security is involved. But, as a columnist not privy to the actual reporting, I try to be far more cautious in drawing sweeping conclusions from news exclusives that do not contain documents or on-the-record confirmation.

Even documents, of course, can be inadvertently taken out of context. Over the weekend, ABC’s Jonathan Karl partly apologized for mischaracterizing the White House’s role in the email chain that led to the watering down of the Benghazi talking points. Karl also created the impression (I know because I was writing a Benghazi column on deadline when the ABC story broke) that he working from the actual emails when, in fact, he had only seen summaries. And when an administration is forced to do a document dump—as last week with Benghazi—it is also worth wondering if anything has been withheld for political, rather than national security, reasons.

Every President Disappoints and Every White House Dissembles. This is the hardest reality for ideological true believers to accept. Just because a president has taken positions you agree with on issues you care about does not mean that his entire administration is filled with high-minded idealists cloaked in virtue. Richard Nixon, the president who obsesses all of us of a certain generation, is the case study in the complexity of judging a leader by his policies. Nixon, after all, created the Environmental Protection Agency, expanded food stamps, proposed a guaranteed annual income and—oh, yes—invaded Cambodia.

Back to Obama: For months, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, insisted that the only change in the Benghazi talking points was a minor wording alteration mandated by the CIA. Now that we have seen the Benghazi email trail, that narrative is (I can’t help channeling my Watergate vocabulary) “inoperative.” This is what press secretaries do— even former Time magazine colleagues like Carney— they parse words, they foster wrong impressions, and sometimes they are the unwitting conduits for the lies of others in the White House.

Understand How Government Works. When documents revealed that State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland played an aggressive role in scrubbing any references to prior warnings from the Benghazi talking points, the fast and glib reaction was that she was protecting Hillary Clinton’s reputation for the 2016 campaign. But while politics may have played a subordinate role here, the heart of the conflict was a battle between the State Department and the CIA over responsibility for the security breach at Benghazi.

Meanwhile, recent reports over the weekend illustrate that the IRS office in Cincinnati was a bureaucratic backwater where careers go to die. While that in no way excuses the heavy-handed auditing of conservative groups, it does add a level of complexity to the IRS story. Were the culpable IRS agents incompetent, political zealots or robots taking orders from Washington?

That’s the problem with scandals—every new fact raises more questions. And all too often the answers do not fit into neat ideological cubbyholes (see Plame, Valerie). As a columnist, it is understandably hard to be both provocative and cautious at the same time. But history teaches us two enduring lessons: We will probably never see a president like Richard Nixon again, and nothing makes a columnist look more ridiculous than becoming over-wrought over ersatz scandals like Whitewater and Debate-gate.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.