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King George and King Henry

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King George and King Henry

"Who will rid me of this meddlesome man?"

Does that sound like George Bush talking to Dick Cheney about former Ambassador Joseph Wilson? Wilson, remember, was courageous enough to dispute the president's claim that Iraq had sought to buy yellow-cake uraniam in Niger, demolishing on of Bush's justifications for invading Iraq.

Or maybe it sounds like Dick Cheney speaking to subordinates. Cheney, who was so angered by Wilson's report on his fact-facting mission to Niger ("What I Didn't Find in Africa") that he clipped it out of The New York Times, scribbled possible rebuttals in the margins, and passed it along to his staff.

Actually, the words might not have been the exact words of either Bush or Cheney. Still, they express their thoughts exactly. We now know from the president himself that he and Cheney met to decide what to do about Wilson. They determined to destroy his credibility. "Get it out," Bush reports himself urging, "Let's get this out."

Get what out? Evidently, classified material that Bush and Cheney thought would hurt Wilson. Bush claims that of course he never directed anyone to disclose the identity of Wilson's wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame. He maintains, moreover, that he was unaware that Cheney had directed his chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, to covertly leak information, rather than formally declassify it. Effective deniability.

What, then, was the damning classified information? That Wilson's trip to Niger was really, as Cheney insinuated in his scribblings, a 'junket' arranged by his wife? But if that lie could qualify as classified information, it certainly was not very damaging.

After years of investigation by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, it looks pretty much like it looked in the summer of 2003: Bush and Cheney simply wanted to punish Wilson and send a message to anyone else who would contemplate crossing the president. They would out Plame and thus end her career.

Who leaked Plame's identity? Journalist Robert Novak tells us that presidential aide Karl Rove merely 'confirmed' the information about Plame, information that had come from someone else still unknown. Deniability all around. Although Fitzgerald may not be able to get a conviction of team Bush-Cheney-Rove, there is little doubt that whoever the leaking underlings were, they committed a treasonous felony because they believed they were executing the will of their bosses.

"Who will rid me of this meddlesome man?"

Words of frustration like this were in fact spoken over 800 years ago by English King Henry II. The meddler was one Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the plot was even more complicated than Plamegate But the impetuous words were interpreted as a royal command, and four bootlicking knights rode off to kill Becket.

The King, of course, couldn't be arraigned or accused of the crime. Not only was he the king, but he hadn't literally given orders for murder. Another case of deniability. The citizens, however, knew what had happened. They forced the king to go to Canterbury to kneel and repent of the deed, and it wasn't long before Becket was recognized as a saint. As every high school student who has read Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" knows, "the holy, blissful martyr's" tomb became and remains a famous place of pilgrimmage.

Wilson is no saint, but his courage and the price he paid for it will be remembered in discussions of political morality for years to come. Meanwhile, team Bush-Cheney-Rove, although escaping legal prosecution, will not be able to run from the more exacting court of public opinion. Even if they didn't arrange to bludgeon their victim as cruelly as Henry II did his, they will find their place in history on the king's side: villains in the annals of statecraft.
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James Parker has retired from careers as a professor of theology and as a public relations officer for a research institution.
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