Washington, October 12, 2010
As Barack Obama struggles to rekindle the magic, one of the most pathetic headlines was the one on a CNN poll last week: “Was Bush Better President Than Obama?”
“Americans are divided over whether President Barack Obama or his predecessor has performed better in the White House,” the CNN article said.
So now the Republican president who bungled wars and the economy and the Democratic president trying to dig us out are in a dead heat?
America’s long-term economic woe has led to short-term memory loss. Republicans are still popular, and the candidates are crazier than ever. And crazy is paying dividends: Sharron Angle, the extreme Republican candidate for the Senate in Nevada, vacuumed up $14 million in the last quarter in her crusade to knock out Harry Reid — the kind of money that presidential candidates dream of collecting.
Karl Rove has put together a potent operation to use anonymous donors to flood the airwaves with attack ads against Democrats. And a gaunt-looking Dick Cheney is out of the hospital and back to raking in money defending torture and pre-emptive war. He, Lynne Cheney, Rove, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Laura Bush drew more than 10,000 people at $495 a pop to a conference in Bakersfield, Calif., last weekend.
Republicans are also gearing up to start re-sliming Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson when “Fair Game,” the movie based on their memoirs, opens next month. Robert Luskin, a lawyer for Rove who considered Plame collateral damage and labeled her “fair game,” dismissively told Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The Times that the Wilsons are “a little past their ‘sell-by’ date.”
He was right on all counts and brave to take on a White House that broke creative new ground in thuggery and skulduggery.
But it was child’s play for the Republicans to undermine the former diplomat and the spy who loved him. Wilson was “pretty widely known as a loudmouth,” as the movie’s director Doug Liman put it, and overstepped at times, posing for Vanity Fair in his Jaguar convertible with his wife coyly cloaked in scarf and sunglasses.
While her husband was in his promotional whirlwind, Plame was in her reticent cloud, her air of blonde placidity belying her anguish at being betrayed and her disgust that Cheney Inc. bullied the CIA, overriding skepticism about Saddam’s weapons system and warping intelligence. “It’s called counterproliferation, Jack,” Naomi Watts’s Plame says to her superior. “Counter.”
The movie makes clear that Plame was not merely “a secretary” or “mediocre agent” at the agency, as partisan critics charged at the time, but a respected undercover spy tracking Iraqi W.M.D. efforts. And it reiterates that Plame did not send her husband, who had worked in embassies in Iraq while Saddam and Bush Senior were in charge and was the ambassador in two African countries, on the fact-finding trip to Niger about a possible Iraqi purchase of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium. She merely acted as an intermediary when a colleague threw his name into the hat for the unpaid gig.
The film creates composites to heighten the tension and suggests that Plame’s Iraqi contacts and their families were murdered once she was outed — a subplot Variety called “apocryphal and manipulative.”
But the movie is a vivid reminder of one of the most egregious abuses of power in history, and there are deliciously diabolical turns by actors playing Scooter Libby, David Addington and Rove. Plame’s CIA bosses are portraits in cravenness, cutting her loose at the moment she starts receiving death threats and her Iraqi sources become endangered.
Liman, who grew up watching his father Arthur’s Buddha-like interrogations during the Iran-Contra hearings, does not use an Oliver Stone sledgehammer on history. He views the scandal through the lens of the Wilsons’ marriage, which snaps for a time under the strain of being hounded by the most powerful men on earth. As Valerie writes in her book about Joe’s demand to see Rove “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs”: “Husbands. What can you do?”
Costumed with lush mane and round paunch, Sean Penn is well suited to capture Wilson’s arrogance and mouthiness, while also showing his honesty, brazenness, sly charm and fierce love of wife and country.
They were the Girl and Boy Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and we should all remember what flew out.