Patrick Fitzgerald’s press conference this afternoon, officially announcing the indictment of Scooter Libby on five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to a grand jury, had the long-awaited quality of a true television event. By keeping an unprecedentedly low profile during the two years of the investigation, stonewalling every press inquiry with a stern, “No comment,” Fitzgerald has cultivated an image of almost monastic austerity, naturally arousing public curiosity about what manner of man he really is. During the endless pregame show leading up to the statement, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews speculated about Fitzgerald’s personality to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank: “We’ll know whether he’s Alexander Scourby or Don Knotts, I guess, in a couple minutes.” Alexander Scourby or Don Knotts?
As it turned out, the Fitzgerald who made himself known in the hourlong press conference belonged nowhere on the Scourby/Knotts continuum. Neither stentorian nor buffoonish, he came off as the kind of dedicated civil servant rarely seen in an administration marked by showboating and cronyism: a colorless, earnest-looking, hardworking bureaucrat (an impression corroborated by this Los Angeles Times profile.) In appearance, Fitzgerald looks not unlike John Dean in his Watergate days: a wide, boyish face with a receding hairline and eager, guileless eyes just begging to be magnified by a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
Fitzgerald began by providing an exhaustive, almost professorial overview of the Plame case, ending in a carefully circumscribed summary of the indictment charges: not that Libby had knowingly outed a CIA agent (an allegation the indictment never makes), but simply that Libby had discussed Plame’s status as a CIA agent on at least four occasions with various reporters and members of the administration (including Dick Cheney) before the date on which he claimed to have learned about it for the first time—in fact, Libby claimed, only days after the last of these conversations, not to know that Wilson even had a wife. Scooter had already scooted by the time the press conference began, tendering his resignation to Cheney just hours after the indictments came down, so Fitzgerald’s painstaking explanation of the myriad and intersecting ways in which Libby’s pants were, indeed, on fire had an after-the-fact, finger-wagging quality: “Mr. Libby, the indictment alleges, was telling Mr. Fleischer something on Monday that he claimed to have learned on Thursday.” Naughty Scooter!
But in general, Fitzgerald tended to stay close to the cool, dispassionate language of the law, refusing to step outside what he repeatedly referred to as “the four corners of the indictment.” In the extended question-and-answer session afterward, Fitzgerald deflected question after question with the prissy insistence that “we can’t talk about people not mentioned in the indictment.” Queries about Rove, Cheney, Miller, Cooper were all batted away. In answer to a reporter’s inquiry about the extensive reach of the investigation, Fitzgerald resorted to a baseball analogy: If a pitcher hit a batter in the head with a pitch, you would want to know all the context to figure out why: What was going on before the game? Was there tension in the dugout?
When another reporter asked him to respond to Republican characterizations of the perjury charges as “technicalities,” the mild-mannered Fitzgerald came as close as he ever did to a firebrand Tom Cruise speech from A Few Good Men. “That talking point won’t fly,” he replied, the eagle embroidered on a blue curtain behind him seeming to swell in size and flutter in the wind as he continued, “The truth is the engine of our judicial system. If you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost … if we were to walk away from this, we might as well hand in our jobs.” But Fitzgerald’s last words before opening the conference up to questions retreated once more to the impersonal language of civil service: “Let’s take a deep breath,” he concluded, “and let justice process the system.”
The reader who writes in with the best interpretation of Chris Matthews’ inscrutable Scourby/Knotts analogy will be rewarded with a random piece of Slate swag.