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When White House spin spins out of control

Live by spin, die by spin.  That will be the lesson if Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicts anyone in the Valerie Plame leak case.  By Howard Fineman.

Live by spin, die by spin.

That will be the lesson if Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicts anyone in the Valerie Plame leak case. Poetic justice is a concept as old as drama, but it applies time and again in the theater of presidential politics. Traits and tactics that lead to power lead to overreach, and ruin. In our day, justice is administered (and balance restored) by law, not by gods. Still, the idea is the same.

You don’t have to reach far back to find examples. Richard Nixon’s rise was made possible by his calculating, outsider’s mind. He knew how to use fear in the service of power because he was so full of fear himself. But this perfect instrument for Cold War and diplomatic realpolitik metastasized into Oval Office paranoia, CREEP and Watergate.

Bill Clinton’s gift was his rogue charm and ability to convey a sense of empathy. But his personal story — “The Comeback Kid” who still believed in a town called Hope — became all too personal when Monica Lewinsky walked through the door. Winsome became tawdry, charm became mendacity — and Clinton nearly was booted out of office.

George W. Bush rose to power on the strength of a disciplined, aggressive, tightly focused, leak-proof spin machine — one that took issue positions and stuck to them, divided the world (including the media) into friends and enemies, and steamrollered the opposition with ruthless skill while the candidate remained smilingly above the fray. Sure of his social skills but not of his speaking ability (let alone his ability to speak extemporaneously), Bush (and Karl Rove) learned to stick to their bullet-item talking points, to operate through surrogates, all the while steering the initial course they had set for themselves.

But the machine they built may have run amok — at least that seems to be what Fitzgerald is examining, as he looks at the leaking of Plame’s identity and of other classified information.

In essence, the Bush-Rove campaign machine was redeployed in the service of selling of the Iraq war and, later, in defense of that sale. Did they go over the line in doing so? We’re about to find out.

In the meantime (and in another twist on the poetic justice them), the very discipline of the machine itself — its short internal supply lines, the consistently followed talking points, the focus on feeding friends and obliterating enemies — could be helping Fitzgerald. Tightly knit groups rise together, but they fall together. If the inner circle is small, it takes only one insider “flip” to endanger the rest.

The campaign sales structure for the political runup to the war was clear from the start. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card talked openly about new-car style “rollouts” in the fall of 2002; it soon became well-known that, among those in the so-called “White House Iraq Group” — WHIG for short — were campaign honchos such as Rove, Karen Hughes, Ari Fleischer and Mary Matalin.

People have long since gotten used to the idea of Rove in the White House. But, the fact is, in 2001, his presence was something novel. He was the first modern-era consultant with an office in the West Wing.

And there he was in the WHIG, along with several of the heaviest hitters of substantive foreign policy, including Vice Presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, then-National Security Advisor Condi Rice and her deputy, Steve Hadley.

What, if any, classified information was floating around at WHIG meetings? What, if any, of it was “put out,” as they say, or used in other ways? What, if any, info might some of the more enthusiastic WHIG members have tried to cadge on the side, perhaps for their own somewhat freelance use? Who leaked what to whom among the Judy Miller types in the national media?

These questions were not asked for the most part at the time, either by the media or the Democrats who now oppose the war. But in American politics we tend to replay every cataclysmic political issue in the courts: Nixon’s reelection in 1972 in Watergate, Clinton’s in 1996 in Monica Madness.

Now comes — again — the war in Iraq and, by extension, the reelection of the self-described “war president.”

Will Fitzgerald indict anyone? Well-placed insiders, including two I’ve talked to in the last two days, think that he will. And then the gods, or rather the law, will begin to speak.