The Plame Conspiracy: Can’t anyone here play this game? Honestly and with integrity?

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New York Mets manager Casey Stengel once said with extreme exasperation: “Can’t Anyone here play this game?” Watching the Plame Conspiracy and possible indictments unfold in Washington I am led to the same exhortation. “Can’t anyone there play the game? Honestly and with integrity?”

I don’t have any inside information but it looks as though indictments will be forthcoming in the Plame controversy. Valerie Plame was a CIA operative, and an especially vulnerable agent because she operated under “non-official cover,” without the protection of a government passport. She was outed by someone in the Bush Administration, apparently because her husband ridiculed the theories that were being used to send Americans to war in Iraq.

Yesterday also brought news that Tom DeLay will be arrested in Texas. I don’t like DeLay but I still feel sorry for him. And for us.

What is going on in Washington?

In the Plame matter it is obvious that even if a crime was not committed, some people in the Bush Administration acted abusively and outrageously, playing games with the safety of a woman who had put her life on the line for the United States. Is this how loyal CIA agents are treated? Some recruiting scenario. Risk your life and if the next president or his munchkins don’t like you, they will play dirty and endanger your life.

I am afraid the president has it backwards. He says he won’t take action until criminal charges are proffered in the Plame matter. He should take action before criminal proceedings begin, not afterwards. The “honor and dignity” that the President promised us he would restore to the White House have been compromised.

No CIA agent, no FBI agent, no government employee, no one, should ever be endangered merely because they incur the ire or wrath of White House staffers. What happened to Valerie Plame was wrong, wrong, wrong. It may not have been a crime, but it was wrong nonetheless. President Bush cannot be a moral leader if he allows immorality to flourish under his nose.

Criminality is not the touchstone of government ethics; dignity and honor (the president was right the first time) are higher, not lower, standards of conduct that we can expect and demand from our leaders and their staff.

Forty years ago I worked in Washington. To be sure I was only a junior staffer. But up close I saw men that had ethics and integrity aplenty. Everett Dirksen, who passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul Douglas who spearheaded civil rights for decades before. Men and women who joined them. In the 1960’s more Republicans than Democrats were voting for civil rights. They changed America forever, for the better.

There was “politics” in Washington then. But there was also a sense of respect for our national institutions. I walked with reverence when I approached the senate chamber. Am I a schlub? I still feel that reverence. In Springfield I tremble when I remember that Abraham Lincoln once walked the streets of the city. Lincoln’s legacy endures; the call to duty is eternal. His testament should not be compromised for chump change. But power brokers and politicians are making slimy deals every day, in Springfield and Chicago.

In Chicago we now have a former governor on trial. Is he a criminal? Actually I doubt it. I am prepared to predict Governor George Ryan will be acquitted. But was he wrong to tolerate a climate where the appearance of favoritism and corruption were allowed to flourish? Absolutely yes.

Finally, Tom DeLay. Some months ago I wrote a critical column on DeLay and a Republican leader told me I could not have his support if I did not support DeLay. I am still critical of DeLay.

By all the evidence I have seen over the last decade, DeLay is a tough, shrewd player. A good politician when he plays by the rules of the game. Why would, why did he compromise himself and allow himself to be manipulated by sleazy lobbyists? Why did he feel “one more vote” in Congress justified compromising his office through the Texas shenanigans? I don’t know if a crime was committed under Texas law, or not. In Texas, as in Illinois, they use the criminal justice system to right political wrongs. So there is room for doubt about DeLay’s guilt. But arresting the man? Outrageous. He should be allowed to surrender without a circus atmosphere.

On and on it goes.

I know that if I had to choose between supporting DeLay and compromising my conscience I would have to campaign for office bereft of one Republican leader who asked too much of me, insisting that I condone sleazy tactics and corrupt practices, whether they are criminal or not. DeLay was wrong to endanger himself, his staff and the causes that brought him to power and prominence, and honor, for a few pieces of silver.

Forty years ago as a young law student at the University of Illinois I also began battling corruption in Illinois. I still am. And I sleep well at night. I helped expose the notorious Paul Powell, who died with millions in bribe money hidden in shoeboxes in a hotel room. I helped block crooked deals, and helped exposed crooked judges from the Illinois Supreme Court to the Cook County courts. Some judges went to jail. I am still confronting corrupt Cook County judges. There seems to be an endless stream of them. And I keep fighting them.

If Casey Stengel were around, I know he would be asking the same question I am: “Why can’t people we elect be trusted to restore honor and dignity to the White House? Must power always corrupt?” The Bush people, of course, are not alone. President Clinton corrupted the White House even worse. He corrupted the courts, Arkansas, his family, everything and anything he touched.

It seems Washington forever draws people with a propensity to cut corners and trim ethical standards. And we, Americans, get stuck with the bill. It’s depressing.

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