Everyone Was “Fair Game”: A Cinematic Revisitation of the Hazards of the Bush Era

Director Doug Liman’s depiction of the Valerie Plame scandal serves as a timely and poignant reminder of the real legacy of the Bush Administration.

by Scott Daniel // November 16, 2010

Earlier this year, a group of anonymous business owners erected a billboard along Interstate 35 in rural Eastern Minnesota. The sign depicted a photograph of a gleeful George W. Bush in a light charcoal suit, grinning and waving to the camera. To the left of the photograph, a set of unmistakably bright gold block letters shouted, “MISS ME YET?” The subtext was transparent. America is stagnating. The Obama experiment is a failure. Dubya wasn’t so bad, after all.

Into this atmosphere re-enters Bush from stage right, with a new set of memoirs and a whistle-stop tour on the interview circuit to make his messy bedroom cleaner by comparison. In Decision Points, Bush attempts to provide moments of clarity designed to engender understanding of, if not sympathy for, his corroded legacy. Thankfully, W’s whirlwind of revisionism coincided with the release of Fair Game, a damningly accurate portrayal of how the Bush White House intentionally sabotaged the life and career of former CIA classified agent Valerie Plame Wilson.

This actually marks the second time I’ve written a piece related to the Plame affair, or “Spygate” as it is known colloquially. Three years ago, a federal district court in Washington dismissed Ms. Plame’s civil suit against individuals in the government on what I perceived as spurious policy grounds. Disgusted and a little zealous, I made the dismissal the centerpiece of my law school comment, published in an official school journal in December 2008 (see link below).

Which is why the theatrical release of Fair Game, based on Ms. Plame’s identically titled account of how the White House intentionally exposed her CIA cover, caught my attention. Due to the direct culpability of both Bush and Cheney and the stakes involved, I’ve come to believe that this breach of basic personal and political ethics is worse than Watergate, and I fear its lessons are losing volume as the jackhammer din from the revision of the Bush legacy gets louder.

The film takes only a few artistic licenses, most pertaining to the details of Plame’s undercover activities with the CIA, none of which compromise the general integrity of the story.  Here’s a shotgun synopsis. Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) served in the CIA as a clandestine counter-proliferation agent specializing in weapons of mass destruction. Prior to the Iraq War, her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), went to Niger at the CIA’s request to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein had procured from the Nigerian government enriched “yellowcake” uranium. Wilson concluded the reports were erroneous.

President Bush nonetheless repeated the unfounded claim in his 2003 State of the Union address as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq. An irked Wilson repudiated the President in an op-ed published in The New York Times in July 2003. In retaliation, Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, “Scooter” Libby (Dave Andrews) discovered and leaked Plame’s identity to conservative columnist Robert Novak. Novak blew Plame’s cover in a subsequent column in The Washington Post.

In a flash, Plame’s contacts and career went down in flames. An Air Force brat who served her country honorably for 18 years, at great risk to her own personal safety, was excoriated by the Administration and its supporters in the media as “unpatriotic.” Needless to say, the entire ordeal exacted a pricey emotional toll on Plame and Wilson, both of whom received a steady stream of personal threats as a consequence of Plame’s exposure.

And what consequences did the Bush Administration officials responsible face? D.C. District Court Judge Reggie Walton convicted Libby of obstruction of justice and sentenced him to 30 months in prison. If you’re concerned about Scooter’s well-being, be not afraid. President Bush commuted his sentence. Scooter did alright for himself, landing a fellowship with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.

This. This is why I don’t miss you, George W. Bush.

The Plame affair, at its core, is beyond sickening. Watts and Penn serve up two compelling performances in Fair Game that drive home the human element of an otherwise abstract news item. Imagine placing yourself in harm’s way for nearly two decades, taking long trips abroad away from the warmth of family in service to your country, only to be publicly flogged by the cronies of a President and Vice President who each found ways to circumvent service in Vietnam. It also goes without saying that the intentional exposure of a CIA operative, in direct violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, comes with a significant national cost in terms of intelligence assets lost.

And we are expected to believe that Republicans have a monopoly on patriotism?

One might expect that President Bush would offer some sort of mea culpa for the actions conducted under his watch during the Plame affair. Decision Points offers no such apology. In fairness, my own scouring of the Bush memoirs has been limited to this subject; I have not read it in its entirety. But on this matter, Bush offers less than a page of comment, on pages 102-103. There, he asserts that he had a reasonable basis for his belief in the forged Nigerian reports and then, to the great vexation of Lady Justice, passively paints Plame and Wilson as mere political opponents looking for a scapegoat on WMD in Iraq.

I do hope that our 43rd President takes the opportunity to head to his nearest theater. I suspect that he would sit in stony silence as he watched Watts portraying Plame, laying nearly lifeless on her bed, admitting on the edge of tears that her exposure had done what the most brutal of CIA training tactics couldn’t do: break her.

I’ll join Valerie Plame and Joseph C. Wilson in response to the ignorant question posited by that Minnesota billboard: “Hell no.”

Photo credit: Summit Entertainment, LLC.

  1. #1 by Mike on November 16, 2010 - 2:13 pm

    Good article, and don’t disagree that gw2 was a lousy Pres, but most if not all recent presidents have done some shady stuff. Clinton included, but I think it speaks more 2 man’s inability to deal with the power given them…

    • #2 by Scott Daniel on November 16, 2010 - 4:03 pm

      I can’t think of anything that Clinton did that reached this level of decrepitude.

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