For one day each year, usually sometime in late December, Washington Post political columnist David Ignatius does something fairly remarkable for a man in his line of work. Ignatius turns his discerning eye inward, to his own writing, and for the full length of a column he takes himself to task for a year’s worth of mistakes. As if writing from a confessional, Ignatius owns up to each and every one of his miscalculations, failed predictions and broken arguments. Then, with a professional courtesy otherwise unknown in his field, he apologizes.
Ignatius apologizes not because he has to, but because he’s of the old-fashioned conviction that a byline still carries with it some degree of personal accountability. I happen to agree with him, but I won’t pretend for one minute that anyone would care enough to try to hold me accountable. Ignatius writes for an international audience, and his opinion carries prominent weight in the policy world. He competes on a national field, with writers who move markets with the stroke of a keyboard. I compete with a crossword puzzle.
Still, I’ve always found something therapeutic about atonement, and though my mistakes may not breed controversy like those of a nationally syndicated columnist, they’re still worth some reflection. So stay with me – bearing in mind that this could just as easily be 800 words of wistfulness and stale farewell advice.
I’ll start where my conscience is the heaviest. In a column last November (Preying on confusion, 11/01/2005), I grumbled about excessive speculation in the media’s coverage of the CIA leak investigation. At that point, the federal probe extended only as far as former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby, who had just been indicted for disclosing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. Libby uncovered Plame’s identity as part of a broader campaign to damage the reputation of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, Plame’s husband and a longstanding critic of the Bush Administration. Commentators on the Left were reaching for anything – anything at all – that might be construed to tie Libby’s leak to the Oval Office.
It all seemed like overkill to me. The chronology of the investigation, which dates back to early 2003, was already perplexing enough. The story simply didn’t need another angle, especially not one grounded in innuendo. I guess that’s why I was so angry with Frank Rich. The venerated New York Times columnist had written a colorful piece back in October that equated the Plame fiasco with the early stages of the Watergate scandal. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first commentator to utter the “W” word. I couldn’t understand why Rich, a man well aware of how loud his voice echoes in the mainstream press, would risk peddling tabloid-quality rumors.
I do now. Last week, we learned that President Bush authorized the disclosure of top-secret intelligence estimates of Iraq’s WMD capabilities as part of that same campaign – previously understood to be confined to the lower ranks of the administration – to undermine the credibility of Wilson and other war critics. Though there is still no evidence that Bush had prior knowledge of the Plame leak, Libby’s testimony does implicate the president in an under-the-table smear campaign of which he has thus far denied any prior knowledge. In fact, Bush has actually promised to lay off any White House official discovered to be involved. Whoops.
This is a huge story, maybe the biggest of the year. If what Libby told prosecutors is accurate, the president has been deliberately and methodically lying to the public for three years now. That’s pretty awful, and I sincerely regret questioning the character of a journalist who had the foresight to realize it. Mr. Rich, if you’re reading this – and something tells me you’re probably not – my apologies.
Of course there have been other, arguably less weighty, slip-ups. I may have suggested in a December column (The Ides of March, 12/13/2005), for instance, that there was a decent probability Israel would launch air-to-ground attacks on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities sometime in March. The article was outwardly speculative, a connect-the-dots piece that presented a collection of statements from Israeli defense officials that seemed to suggest steps toward a more aggressive military posture. Well, April is here, and so is Iran.
A couple of summers ago I predicted, with embarrassing self-assurance, that the Democratic Party would reclaim a Senate majority in the 2004 elections (Closing ranks, 07/19/2004). As you probably know, Democrats were routed in those elections. Republicans actually widened their majority. And while I’m tempted to blame my imprecision on an erratic and unreliable electorate, that would be ignoring the sad reality that I had no idea what I was talking about. I apologize if I got anybody’s hopes up.
There are many more – too many, in fact, to acknowledge in such limited space. I would, however, like to finally address the flood of angry e-mails I received around this time last year concerning Squirrel huggers (4/12/2005), an article examining the Michigan Squirrel Club and its general value on campus. Club members didn’t appreciate my conclusion, which posited that the organization actually operates to the detriment of local squirrel populations. They accused me of deliberately sabotaging their reputation. They called me ignorant and condescending. They told me I didn’t know the first thing about urban ecology, or squirrels for that matter. I still think they’re just in it for the T-shirts.
Singer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.