WASHINGTON -- How awkward. A senior White House aide has been indicted, and suddenly, in Republican circles, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not the big deal that it used to be.
The indictment Friday of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, and the continuing grand jury investigation of President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, makes it increasingly difficult for the Bush administration to point fingers only at Democrats for devaluing the rule of law. But Team Bush and its surrogates will try anyway.
Days before Mr. Libby's indictment, for example, the conservative spin machine shifted into overdrive with a pre-emptive public relations strike that was astonishing in its bold audacity.
Mr. Libby was indicted by a federal grand jury on five counts - one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury and two counts of making false statements in special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation of the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name.
Defenders of Team Bush seized on the fact that the indictment does not accuse Mr. Libby of violating national security laws, such as intentionally leaking the identity of Ms. Plame, but of lying about how and when he learned her identity in 2003 and told reporters about it.
Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas anticipated such a development when she expressed the sincere hope on NBC's Meet the Press Oct. 26 that if there is going to be an indictment, "it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality ... just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars."
Funny how Ms. Hutchison and her fellow Republican senators took "some perjury technicality" a lot more seriously when they tried former President Bill Clinton for it.
Since even fellow partisans were offended by the perjury-is-no-big-deal spin, it soon was displaced in the conservative chorus by variations on the notion that Mr. Bush's critics are trying to turn a political and policy dispute into a crime.
The New York Times recently reported that "allies of the White House ... intended to pursue a strategy of attacking any criminal charges as a disagreement over legal technicalities or the product of an overzealous prosecutor."
Going after the prosecutor is a tactic that former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, recently indicted on an allegation of a campaign-financing-money-laundering scheme, and friends are using in Texas in hopes of winning a favorable jury pool. But Mr. Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney based in Chicago, has a hard-to-shake reputation as a no-nonsense equal-opportunity indicter.
Yet the no-big-deal spin persists. It is embodied in the phrase "criminalization of politics," which was repeated so many times during the past month by Fox TV anchors and commentators that the liberal ThinkProgress.org Web site posted a hilarious video montage of some of the sound bites.
But, if so, whose politics are being criminalized? Team Bush disagreed with much of the intelligence community in the debate over Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. But there are plenty of legitimate, out-in-the-open ways to debate such political and policy issues.
Reality check: The White House had a right to go after former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, Valerie Plame's husband, whose op-ed in The New York Times disputed Mr. Bush's claim that Mr. Hussein had been seeking uranium in Africa. But in going after Mr. Wilson, the Bush administration did not have a right to break the law.
And the rest of us have the right, no matter how vigorously Team Bush tries to change the subject, to ask questions. For example, why did the administration seem to be far more concerned with silencing Mr. Wilson than with responding to his legitimate concerns?
It is OK to ask whether politics are being criminalized. But a bigger problem here appears to be the politicization of crimes.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.