Shakespeare knew all about deniability

It's called deniability. By keeping a president out of the loop, his loyal aides can hope to insulate him against any accusation that he knew of the dirty tricks being played on his opponents. That doesn't make the tricks any cleaner, or that the chief executive is any less responsible for what is done by his administration. But by keeping him in the dark, his aides can claim he knew nothing of all the skullduggery practiced in his interest.

. . .

In the case of an exceptionally dense or just exceptionally cautious president, this claim might even be true, an Extra Added Bonus and a rare virtue indeed in the forest of cover-ups that begins to overwhelm American presidents when the second-term blues set in.

. . .

Here's the latest example of how the Great Game of Deniability is played: It now comes out that, despite earlier claims from the president's press secretary, the White House knew that an inspector general's report was about to show that the IRS had targeted conservative groups like the tea party for special scrutiny. The president's counsel knew it, the president's chief of staff knew it. But it seems they were careful not to tell the president about it.

The current presidential press secretary's name is Jay Carney, but it might as well be Ron Ziegler, who was Richard Nixon's mouthpiece and was always being caught up in his own contradictions.

How could Mr. Carney claim the president didn't know that this scandal at the IRS was about to blow up on him -- even though his closest advisers did? Jay Carney explained that "some matters are not appropriate to convey to him, and this (was) one of them."

That way, like any gang boss called to testify before the old McClellan Committee back in the mobsterish Fifties, the president can claim, "I didn't know nuttin.' " It seems you can take a president out of Chicago, but not the Chicago out of a president.

. . .

Lois Lerner, the bureaucrat who was supposed to be in charge of this whole, highly dubious operation at the IRS, has now taken the Fifth before a congressional investigating committee. Which is her every right, but it does provide another illustration of just how open this administration that was going to be "transparent" has become -- transparent as a brick wall. Hope and Change may have become words now used only ironically to describe what this administration offers, but its Audacity is more audacious than ever.

Talk about a flashback: Ms. Lerner's taking the Fifth brings back the Fifties, complete with its superficial layer of cool propriety over all the grubby manipulations underneath. One almost expects the shades of John L. McClellan and his chief investigator/prosecutor/persecutor, an up-and-coming fellow named Robert F. Kennedy, to appear at these current hearings -- alongside the ghosts of Jimmy Hoffa, Dave Beck, Vito Genovese and enough mob bosses to fill a good-sized hearing room. And now we're told the president of the United States, too, didn't know nuttin'. Or even suspect a lot.

. . .

Deniability. It's become almost a standard feature of modern presidential politics, whether the subject is Watergate, Iran-Contra, L'Affaire Lewinsky and now the games at the IRS. But the history of deniability goes back a lot further. All the way back to an Elizabethan playwright of some note, W. Shakespeare.

Master Will knew all about deniability and how it works. See Act II, Scene 7 of Antony and Cleopatra. The names may be different now, but the way White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough served their president is pretty much how a Roman statesman named Pompey wished his friend and servant Menas had had the subtlety to pull off.

In Shakespeare's account, Pompey is entertaining the Roman triumvirate -- Marc Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus -- aboard his galley when Menas interrupts him during cocktail hour. It seems Pompey's major-domo has devised a scheme that's sure to work, and he can't resist letting his boss know how clever he's been to come up with it.

Menas begins his whispered aside with Pompey by tempting him with the one lure no politician may be able to resist -- power. Great power.

"Wilt thou be lord of all the world?" asks Menas.

"What says't thou?" asks Pompey, who heard him very well.

"Wilt thou be lord of all the world? That's twice."

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos