05 June 2007

Ambassador Joe Wilson's mountainside chat

It's not every day a former ambassador drops in to speak at a time and place near me, but he did just that at the Conference on World Affairs this spring.

I loved going to his talk in part because now I get to call him Joe Wilson, which is what his namecard read. He mentioned that he'd been asked earlier whether he wanted the "Ambassador" title written on the card bearing his name and he joked, "No, I save my title for when I'm trying to get a good table at a restaurant in Iowa," to which someone in the audience snapped, "You mean there are good restaurants in Iowa?" No flies on this audience.

Wilson stood on the stage, relaxed and looking like someone you'd see at the seafood counter at Whole Foods, in a jacket over a casual shirt with jeans and cowboy boots, and longish hair. No shred of worsted or shine of brass buttons. It was great to see him looking so comfortable, literally as if he'd let his hair down. You'd think I know the guy personally, the way I'm going on. I haven't met many people whom I'd describe as affable, but he is one. My first surprise was hearing him say "nuke-you-lar" -- all I can guess is he picked it up from hanging around the Bushes for so long.

I was literally bubbling over with happiness when I learned Wilson's talk was on a day when I had no other obligations. From my mood that morning you'd think I had tickets to Wimbledon. I felt I was getting a perch with a great view on a bit of history unfolding in front of me. When New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail for not revealing her story's source, whom we now know to be Scooter Libby, I felt independent journalism had taken a huge body blow, even if I was not initially certain what would suffer most in the end (small papers with small legal budgets? the willingness of reporters to take risks in reporting that could potentially result in similar circumstances?). I felt so naive when I read later about how entrenched Miller personally had been in her professional relationships and her reporting. I suppose I just hadn't conceived of reporters beyond the Woodward and Bernstein model in All the President's Men or the ones I know; I'd never imagined them as part of the same milieu as career politicos like Scooter Libby. Miller seemed to have become a reporter who traveled in the same circles as other powerful, entitled people and had become one herself.

So I was very curious about what Joseph Wilson would say about the whole affair.

He built a case for being a patriot. He spoke of his years of service across administrations and partisan lines. Wilson spoke of his clash with his government over his wife's unlawful exposure by those who were supposed to be on her own side. He described the character assassination that is the stock-in-trade of the current administration. His speech was well crafted; he is adept at bringing audiences with him. Lawyerlike always, he laid out his defenses, such as: Who'd want a junket to one of the poorest countries in the world? More, why would his wife have been interested in sending him to Africa for a couple of weeks just after having two new twin babies? There is always the fact that he was one of Bush Sr.'s go-to boys in the first Gulf War, a detail often omitted from Fox News reports, I'm sure. Not the least of his points were the mere two hours of Google searches it required to debunk the bogus documents of a deal for yellowcake uranium between Iraq and Niger, documents taken at face value by American intelligence.

I felt the urgency of Wilson's plea not to forget about the sixteen words in mini-Bush's Case-for-Iraq State of the Union address, the ones with no basis in fact. Wilson asked, "How come no one knows the name of the guy responsible for those sixteen words but everyone knows my wife's name?" That one drew a roar of laughter and applause. (Even just this past weekend on the NPR radio quiz show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," someone was groping unsuccessfully for Valerie Plame's name, when the host said, "You must be the only one in the country who doesn't know it.")

By the end of the half hour during which Wilson laid out his case, his closing argument had me: that Wilson and Plame's treatment by the people in their government, for whom they both served long and admirably, was nothing short of treasonous. Wilson has filed suit against Cheney and his cohorts. Many await the results.

Later, I felt a little of the way I feel after a Steven Spielberg movie, a little manipulated but in mostly a good way. The Plame/Miller events were a landmark and we will be seeing their fallout for a long time. I was inspired to be a good patriot in the sense of standing up for the rights of people to do the kind of work he and his wife did. I mean, who'd have thunk a pair of hardworking career public servants could wind up at such odds with the very institution they were serving? It doesn't seem right that standing up for an "unpopular position" on whether to go to war in Iraq based on solid evidence -- or the utter lack of any evidence to justify said decision -- should warrant the kind of career-killing character assassination those people have endured.

I mentioned to a couple of people the week journalist David Halbersham died at what now seems like the young age of 71 that I was hit hard by his death somehow. I felt called to action. He worked unstintingly independently in his reporting on the Vietnam War. I think of lives like his as a path not taken. And, like many a teenager in the late 1970s, I wanted to be a journalist after first seeing and then reading All the President's Men when I was in ninth grade (I still owe the library a copy of that book, my secret shame all these years). There's still a part of me that wants to go after some big investigative story, like child trafficking, to clench hold like a terrier and shake the threads loose.

For now I'll keep working at what is at the core of it for me, the truth-telling, in my other writing work. But I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to ride my bike a couple of miles to hear and participate in conversations like this one. They keep me on my toes.

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