You have to feel sorry for poor ‘Scooter’ Libby today. Not only is he likely to go up the river without a pardon, but even his allies on the right are mostly just making fun of the whole thing. And considering what he actually did, prison does seem a bit harsh, at least at first glance.

I mean, let’s first look at what Scooter didn’t do:

  1. He didn’t out a covert CIA agent. (At least not according to one of the principal authors of the law that governs that stuff.)
  2. He didn’t out Valerie Plame in any event. (That dubious honor goes to Dick Armitage.)
  3. He didn’t set out to destroy a noble, heroic civil servant strugging to stop the march to war (Hubby Wilson). (To believe that he did, you’d have to believe that Wilson wasn’t a lying opportunist. Which is, according to the Washington Post, pretty much what he was.)
  4. He certainly didn’t commit perjury in the common imagination. No heroic G-man defying lies on the stand for poor Scooter. No, his obstruction of justice was as sad and pathetic as the celebration of the Left when his verdict was announced. (Look, Fitzmas finally arrived, only to bring you the cheap bargain knock-off of a Libby conviction rather than the bright shiny Rove perpwalk that you were dreaming of.)

So, one must ask, why is Scooter headed for prison, unlike, say, Sandy Berger, who actually destroyed irreplacable documents linked to National Security which he first stole from a secure archive? Well, Sandy remembered the first, all-important rule of survival in Washington, D.C.—don’t piss off a federal prosecutor. Sandy played the game, but Scooter played the playa. And, as everyone knows, that’s what get’s you messed up.

Scooter commited the cardinal sin of federal prosecutions: appearing to mislead a prosecutor in an actionable way. That’s why Patrick Fitzgerald nailed him to the wall, and that’s why the Justice Department will probably back their man all the way. Prosecutors, like reporters, hate being lied to. Unlike reporters, they can express their rage by sending you to pound-you-in-ahem federal prison. And, you know what, I don’t blame Fitzgerald one darn bit. He laid it all out on the line when the indictment first came down:

When I was in New York working as a prosecutor, we brought those cases because we realize that the truth is the engine of our judicial system. And if you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost. In Philadelphia where Jack works, they prosecute false statements and obstruction of justice. When I got to Chicago, I knew that people before me had prosecuted false statements, obstruction and perjury cases and we do it all the time. And a truck driver pays a bribe or someone else does something, where they go into a Grand jury afterward and lie about it, they get indicted all the time.

Any notion that anyone might have that there is a different standard for a high official or that this is somehow singling out obstruction of justice or perjury is upside down. If these facts are true, if we were to walk away from this and not charge obstruction of justice as perjury, we might as well just hand in our jobs because our jobs in the criminal justice system is to make sure people tell us the truth. And when it’s a high level official in a very sensitive investigation, it is a very, very serious matter that no one should take lightly.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to poor Scooter. He played the game and now he’s got to pay the piper. Sadly for him, the current president is remarkably stingy with the pardons (unlike, say, his predecessor, who basically had an entire payment plan laid out). But, though his fate may be unusual in Washington, his crime is hardly uncommon.

In fact, in his perjury, Scooter is most like is another fellow with a nickname starting with ‘S’—good ole ‘Slick Willy’ himself. Let’s tally up the similarities:

  • In both cases the underlying crime really wasn’t a crime.
    It may be tacky to be serviced by your intern in the Oval Office, but it’s not illegal. (Heck, it’s probably not even bad form in France.) And it’s not even all that sleazy to impugn a partisan hack by pointing out that his connected wife set up his trip, much less illegal.
  • In both cases the perjuror tried every trick in the book to dance away from the hard question.
    You can’t fault Scooter for trying, but he just couldn’t follow the master on this one.
  • In both cases they were pinned to the wall by external evidence.
    Stupid forensics…

So why does Scooter get to to the Big House, while Clinton went back to the White House? Because sadly, Scooter, Bill Clinton lied under oath while he was a sitting President, you didn’t. If you want the snazzy immunity (not to mention the kick-ass jumbo jet) then you have to do the little things like scheme your way to a primary win and win a national election. Otherwise, you get tried by 12 random citizens, instead of 100 of your fellow lying, cheating, bribable Senators. Well, too late now. But I’m sure you’re remember that the next time around.

Remember, everyone, perjury is a privilege, not a right. Unless you’re the President. And certainly not if you piss off an old-fashioned bulldog prosecutor. Once they’re after someone, those guys are nobody’s friend.