An Abelian Perjurer

By Sean Carroll | July 3, 2007 6:34 pm

Typically, sentences do not commute. But sometimes they do. Consider:

Scooter is a liar.

Liar is a scooter.

Both equally true, as convicted perjurer Scooter Libby manages to zip past his required jail time, with a little help from his friends in high places.

(I find it hard to believe that I’m the first to think of this joke. Or perhaps I’m just the first to admit it in public.)

The deep, inscrutable irony here, of course, is that George W. Bush hates to pardon people or commute their sentences. Not his job to overrule a jury, he proudly proclaims. Even if we’re talking about a mentally retarded inmate sentenced to death by a jury that never had a chance to hear mitigating evidence. Those inmates could count themselves lucky if W didn’t openly mock them. But Scooter was special; the usual formalities were readily dispensed with in this case.

Or perhaps Bush has simply experienced a change of heart, and will now start freeing all sorts of unjustly convicted prisoners. He has plenty of opportunity; the U.S. has by far the world’s largest prison population, over two million, and it’s growing faster than ever. Over a third are estimated to be nonviolent drug offenders, typically punished by preposterous mandatory sentencing laws. I might point out that the impact of such laws does not seem to fall equally on members of all racial and economic groups, but that could seem shrill.

Folks who would, on ideological grounds, tend to be sympathetic towards the Republican party are struggling with the challenge presented to them by the Bush administration. It’s perfectly possible to be in favor of tax cuts, Social Security privatization, and the war in Iraq, and yet recognize that this administration represents a vortex of corruption, venality, and incompetence that the country hasn’t had to suffer through in at least the last hundred years. Bush’s fondness for signing statements that declare his intention to follow the laws passed by Congress only when he wants to would typically be grounds all by itself for honest conservatives to wash their hands of the guy. But so many people still find it hard to do. Over at the Volokh Conspiracy (where one of their co-bloggers, Randy Barnett, was actually a co-author on a brief submitted on behalf of Libby), both Orin Kerr and Eugene Volokh can only look at the President’s decision to commute Libby’s sentence and shake their heads in disgust. But their commenters, not so much. These are people who used to think that perjury was bad, but now seem to have softened their stance, characterizing (Republican) investigator Patrick Fitzgerald’s prosecution of Libby as politcal and partisan (except that it’s not).

Republicans should be thanking their lucky stars for the 22nd Amendment, and by extension FDR. Can you imagine if Bush were allowed to run for a third term? The acrimonious split between his die-hard supporters and conservatives with any sort of remaining integrity would tear the party apart, possibly for good.

  • JD

    I’ve been trying to make the commutation of Scooter’s sentence into a joke for most of the past two days, but I just couldn’t get it to work right. So you win for first-to-publish. :-)

  • Jeremy Chapman

    Regarding the discrimination in prisons, during a course on racism I came across an interesting statistic. It stated that 70% of people who use cocaine are white, whereas %70 of the people in prison for cocaine related crimes are black.

  • Lee Kottner

    If only the reality were as funny as the joke.

  • DB

    One of my officemates didn’t know what “commute” meant in this context and so thought that maybe Bush and Libby had exchanged places or something like that.

  • Moody834

    Imagine what Scooter might have been persuaded to talk about — by the Feds, I mean — if he’d gone to prison. I know another reason why the caged bird sings. Then imagine if he was given a full pardon now, with BushCo. still in office, so that the Fifth wouldn’t apply in his case.

    What? You say that you don’t need to imagine that?

  • Dave

    I have some sympathy for Scooter. After a few years in the Bush Administration, I can imagine that it could be quite difficult to switch gears and actually tell the truth to someone who doesn’t work for the administration. Fortunately for Scooter, Bush doesn’t believe that the laws really apply to him or members of his administration, nor does he seem to feel that it is very important to be truthful. The only remaining episode in this story will occur on Jan. 19, 2009 when, according to Bush family tradition, all those convicted or indicted of felonies serving with Bush will be pardoned.

  • JoAnne

    So, perhaps if Bush has had a change of heart and is seriously thinking about the plight of unjustly accused prisoners, then maybe he might want to rethink the situation at Guantanamo Bay.

    Oh, I forgot, the phrase is actually “unjustly convicted prisoners.” Since the Guantanamo folks have never had the opportunity of a trial for their alleged crimes, I guess they don’t fall into this category.

    Sorry folks, but as bad as this Libby fiasco is, it pales in comparison to what we have done to Iraq.

  • PK

    The defining characteristic of the Bush administration is cronyism. It explains everything from the anti global warming debate and the Iraq war to the mess created after Katrina.

  • cynic

    The judicial murder of the mentally other-enabled is not the sole province of the evil right. Bill Clinton displayed his much vaunted emotional intelligence at its most acute when he fried a murderer with a mental age of six (who asked that the remnants of his last meal be saved for ‘when he came back’ from his date with Old Sparky). The killer’s mental incapacity was in part due to a botched suicide attempt that destroyed part of his brain, and might well have been recognised as a cunning attempt to thwart justice. Whatever, Bill washed his hands, looked the other way and garnered lots of votes.

  • Pingback: Cosmic Variance on Libby | Mike Daum()

  • Sean

    cynic, you’re right, Bill Clinton’s actions in the Ricky Ray Rector case were shameful and opportunistic. If he were President and it had just happened, I would be complaining about that. However, since I am not a believer in the “two wrongs make a right” theory of moral justice, I am complaining about the travesties being perpetrated right now by the guy who is currently President.

  • Blake Stacey, OM

    Does this mean that Scooter and lying can’t be simultaneously measured to arbitrary precision? If people who look at the man can’t tell he’s lying, that might make a difference.

  • drunk

    Come on, after 7 years on the job, we should know by now that GW Bush does not come under rule of law. He does not even come under the rule of the Constitution. He operates under rule of God!! With his supreme morality, he feels he is uniquely qualified as the sole Decider of right and wrong. Elected by God, he is above Congress and mere citizenry. Don’t call him a traitor as some do. How can he be a traitor when he is the country? And he cannot be wrong because his God is always right. Indeed, Bush is not only the ‘be all’ but also the ‘know all’ – able to precisely recast the decisions of jury and judges, overturn conviction. His God-given morality must and has formed the basis of American scientific research. He invaded a country pre-emptively, triggered the deaths of quarter million people, and feel completely righteous. He created his very own jail of God, aka Gitmo, operating under his laws. America is truly blessed with having such a saint as chief executive. Yes, George W Bush, Decider of the United States, the super-Pope, the Second Jesus, Leader of New Rome, the Fourth Crusader, new Messenger of God. After November 2008, America will crown him Holy Emperor of New World.

  • Penny

    Don’t praise the imminent end of the Bush Admin. yet. The current Republican candidates are no better than Bush. If one of them wins in 2008, we will have four MORE years of corruption, venality, and incompetence, possibly more if we get a two-termer in there.

  • drunk

    Bush commuted death sentence of Saddam Hussein
    July 4, 2007

    President Bush announced today that he has commuted the death sentence of the ex-Iraqi president. “I have decided that, while the failure to find WMD does not necessarily mean Iraq has not possessed WMD, it would likely be of a small quantity that does not constitute a clear and present danger to the United States. Therefore, the death sentence of Saddam is too harsh requiring this compassionate act by me. On this day of America’s birthday celebration, I wish him all the best. I am pleased to know that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people have expressed deep gratitude to my administration and the American people for stepping into Iraq on behalf of the UN to determine the true status of WMD and therefore saved their country from a great danger and suffering.”

  • DaveW

    Or perhaps Bush has simply experienced a change of heart, and will now start freeing all sorts of unjustly convicted prisoners.

    Do you think he’s been born again yet again? Do you think maybe ass cells are even better than fetal stem cells in their ability to just keep on reanimating whenever somebody mentions “Jesus” and “power” in the same breath?

  • Dave

    Dear Penny,

    The current Republican candidates are no better than Bush

    While I am not terribly happy with the Republican candidates, I really have to object to this. Bush is really far worse just a typical Republican – he’s one of the worst presidents in history. Only Bush would have wasted thousands of American lives and far more Iraqi ones in a war that only damages our national security. Only Bush could make John Ashcroft into a defender of integrity in the Justice Department.

    The only Republican in recent memory that could have challenged Bush for the worst president in history was Reagan. But, Reagan was saved by Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov who may have prevented a nuclear war in 1983 refusing to pass along warnings of apparent US missile launches to his superiors. The geriatric, paranoid Soviet leadership might well have launched an all-out attack because they were convinced that Reagan planned a first strike against them. While most of the blame would go to the Soviets for such an attack, it is hard to imagine that Reagan could avoid going being rated as the worst president in history by any historians still around after an all-out Soviet nuclear strike.

  • UniversalVM

    The damage done by GWB and “loyal bushies” to America will take decades to repair. How such a corrupt, incompetent, and banal administration managed to get re-elected still continues to amaze me.
    They have manipulated the religious fringe perfectly and used fear mongering and “War on Terror” foolishness to wrap themselves in the flag. Another pointer to how religion can adversely impact us – a small group of manipulative charlatans appeal to God (and Country) to foist a broken government. Wake up America!

  • kavik

    The unbelievable incompetence, venality, and corruption of the present administration is truly impressive (but I’ve seen worse – I was in college during the reign of He Who Shall Not Be Named (Nixon)). Thru careful manipulation of the media and the judicial system, Libby has done his job – Cheney had him thrown under the bus as a diversion. It says much that Hunter S. Thompson believed that GWB was as bad as He Who Shall Not Be Named.

  • Jud

    “[T]his administration represents a vortex of corruption, venality, and incompetence….”

    Thanks for those words, which gave rise to thoughts of a Doug Adams-ish Total Incompetence Vortex.

    Re “He Who Shall Not Be Named (Nixon),” I recall my mother turning off the TV or leaving the room whenever he appeared. At the time, I was a believer (and to a great extent still am) that you have to keep tabs on what The Other Guys are doing. But whenever W appears on TV, I gotta change channels (many more alternatives now than in the late 60s – early 70s), turn it off, or leave the room. It’s a visceral reaction, purely brain stem – doesn’t even make it up to the higher thought centers before I hit the buttons on the remote. I know exactly how Mom felt. So the heretofore conceptually impossible may have occurred: W may actually be (I write these words in a mental hush of awe) Worse Than Nixon!

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • DaveW

    Dave sez:

    Bush is really far worse just a typical Republican – he’s one of the worst presidents in history.

    First of all, every Republican president since Lincoln has been among the worst in history, except maybe Ford, who wasn’t much of anything.

    More importantly, your attempt to personalize the evils of the GOP in one person reach over the line to absurdity. Have you already forgotten how famous the GOP Congressional contingent was for its abject lockstep in giving bush everything he ever wanted? It took historically low approval ratings and a disastrous midterm election to pry some of the more self-interested ones away.

    Partisan loyalty is a vice unless it’s based on principle. GOP loyalty to Bush, therefore, is based either on unprincipled party loyalty or loyalty to Bushist principles., I won’t speculate on which is the greater sin, but either way, there is nothing in the Republican Party that makes it worth keeping. It’s time for it to go the way of the Federalists.

    And BTW, I’m not even a Democrat.

  • Binh

    Funny how Paris Hilton spent more time in jail for violating her parole by driving under the influence than Libby for lying to a federal prosecutor about how he (and his bosses) lied the country into the Iraq war.

  • Chris W.

    Of course, Robert Novak has something to say on the subject.

  • Changcho

    “The damage done by GWB and “loyal bushies” to America will take decades to repair. ”

    Don’t be so sure that it *can* be repaired.

  • ragtag

    A silly question: was it ever found out who was it that talked to Novak in the first place?

  • John

    ragtag… yes, the leaker was found, early on, by Mr. Fitzgerald. Richard Armitage admitted he was the leaker. That didn’t stop Mr. Fitzgerald from using his prosecutorial zeal to continue digging around hoping he could find something, anything that might be turned into a crime.

  • tyler

    John, things are not “turned into” crimes. They either are crimes or they are not. Libby is a criminal, convicted by a jury of his peers, and any attempt to minimize or excuse his crime is an unpatriotic act of pure partisan venality.

    Lying to cover up a crime is a crime. If the crime is successfully covered up, and the lie is successful, the lie is no less of a crime, in fact it is moreso.

    The only relevant question there is, “should armitage also be indicted?”

    Bob Novak, OTOH, is at least ethically if not technically guilty of treason. Any “conservative” or Republican who defends his actions in revealing a covert op is guilty of the worst kind of hypocrisy. If a liberal journalist had done that, the National Review would be screaming for their head, and rightly so. But no, he’s “on the team” so his despicable, treasonous behavior is excused.

  • UniversalVM

    #20 J

    I can echo this sentiment pretty much EXACTLY!
    Every single time I see GWB on TV I get some sort of an allergic reaction…I have to change the channel or switch the whole thing off.
    I keep asking myself the same question over and over again …Is this half-wit really the President? Really? really really? This is the commander-in-chief with the finger on the nuclear button? (He pronounces it “nu-cular” BTW.) Anytime I have to listen to even a few seconds of GWB, I feel my IQ dropping a couple of points.

    #25 C

    I have to believe that the “loyal Bushie” damage can be repaired. This country has too many good people to believe that stinking mess cannot be eventually cleaned up by intelligent, deliberative action. If the damage is irreparable, we are all well and truly boned.

  • cynic

    Your are indeed right, Sean, two wrongs don’t make a right. Then neither does one.
    It’s just that it’s hard to take one side, when both are fairly dreadful. Here in the UK we have just seen Mr Blair, who was just about as soggy-left, soi-dissant all knowing, pro-self-improvement, feminised and lawyer-fluent as it is possible to be, escorted from the building. And why? Iraq? As he cuddled up to W, he was only doing what he was told to by slick Willy. Then he lied, like Bill caught with a ceegar up an intern’s ass, and lied and lied. I tend to loathe HMG, whichever of the 2 parties is in power, as a matter of principle and pratice; sadly it is becoming ever more personal these days.

  • John


    Sure, Fitzgerald didn’t force anyone to lie. I agree with you that “turned into” is not a good choice of words. But, had any crime been committed when Fitzgerald began his investigation? No, at least in the judgement of Fitzgerald. Mr. F did manage to discover that Libby lied during the course of the investigation, and I agree L ought to be punished for that serious crime. F also imprisoned reporters, which I find to be outrageous considering that F had already found the leaker.

    I am concerned that L isn’t doing some time in jail (although the Dark Lord Rove requires that I point out at least one other member of the Executive lied to a SP/Grand Jury and avoided jail time). On the other hand, L wasn’t covering up the outing of Ms. Plame. F knew who revealed her identity — Armitage — yet he continued to question witnesses and place reporters in jail for protecting sources. And for what? We now know F had already found the leaker, and he wasn’t in the White House. I find all that just as troubling as the expanded inquisition against Clinton a few years earlier.

    As far as Ms. Plame’s covert status, it seems that there is a serious question if she was covert according to the IIPA. In any case, F decided that no crime had been committed by Armitage revealing her identity, IIPA or not. Novak was unaware of her covert status and the CIA didn’t intervene when he checked it out, or I would agree that he would be at least morally culpable of treason. So it seems the overheated rhetoric is from the side claiming treason! treason!

  • Count Iblis

    #21 Reginald Selkirk

    Salon interview with Paul Davies

    From the link:

    People are not the result of a cosmic accident, but of laws of the universe that grant our lives meaning and purpose, says physicist Paul Davies.

    Are you saying that Libby telling lies was not a cosmic accident? :)

  • Arun

    . But, had any crime been committed when Fitzgerald began his investigation? No, at least in the judgement of Fitzgerald.

    ????? – He couldn’t have begun his investigation without there being prima facie, a crime. The determination of whether an actual crime was committed and who committed it, because of the wording of the law allegedly broken, (see here
    requires determination of intent.

    Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

    Scooter Libby impeded that investigation by his perjury and was convicted for it no different from any number of other perjurers.

  • Arun

    It is also worth pointing out that Libby lied to the FBI long before Fitzgerald even entered the scene. For whatever reason, lying to the FBI is a crime in our law; one cannot make special pleading for Libby.

    This may amuse you:

  • Arun
  • DaveW

    Re: #34 — It might also be pointed out that Martha Stewart went to the slammer for lying to the FBI, just like Libby lied. Except she lied about some exotic twist in securities law and Libby lied about the national security of the United States. I thought Stewart got screwed by a bad law, but the only thing worst than a bad law is a bad law that gets ignored if the criminal lied to cover up for his boss. I guess Equal Justice Under Law has never made it into “conservative morality”.

  • wag

    Dave said he had some sympathy for Scooter. Me to. I have enormous sympathy for Scooter.

    I have the kind of sympathy for him that can be found in the dictionary — somewhere between shit and syphilis.

  • David Schneider

    Hello! I’m the founder/editor of a new online magazine of arts and ideas for the 21st century called The Boy Bedlam Review — found at .

    This is an excellent piece — gathering together all the hypocrisies in hyperlinks — and I would very much like to feature it in our Politics/World section. Our (absurdly miniscule) budget can’t, as yet, support us throwing money your way, but I’m hoping that you might be inspired by our approach to contribute this piece to our widening Poetics of Information.

    David Schneider


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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