JOHN BRUMMETT: Let Bush scoot on Libby relief

I feel obliged first to belabor the obvious, which is that George W. Bush has been an utterly disastrous president.

The unprovoked invasion of Iraq was a nonsensical detour from the war on terror. It was executed on the basis of arrogant, unpardonable deception. It has been an epic debacle, a travesty. America's respect and good will in the world have been tragically squandered.

Tax and regulatory policy have been ceded to special business interests. We've had a president who was a mere puppet of a secretive, arrogant, vile vice president. We've had a president who could not execute an articulate sentence.

The fair-minded among us are obliged, though, to extend credit when rarely due.

So here goes: Bush was right in creating that Medicare prescription drug benefit, which seems to have worked better than expected. And this beleaguered president, motivated by obeisance to big business and compassion for Latinos, was right to seek a broad immigration solution encompassing tougher border security and a path to citizenship for those here illegally but otherwise behaving and working.

And -- drum roll, please -- Bush was right to commute the prison sentence of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, but not pardon him outright.

First, no one in the White House outed a covert CIA operative. Valerie Plame wasn't a covert CIA operative when no one in the White House, but instead Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, first invoked her. He told a journalist -- Robert Novak -- that the man the CIA had sent to Niger to investigate whether Iraq had sought to purchase fuel for nuclear weapons was married to a woman in the CIA.

The charge of Iraq's purchase wasn't true, of course, but Bush and Dick Cheney kept saying it, anyway -- which, if there is a real crime here, would be it.

Wanting to discredit a critical New York Times commentary by Plame's husband, and thus fortify their bogus justification for war, Cheney and his people -- like Libby, his chief of staff -- picked up on the Novak reference in conversations with friendly journalists. They did so not to reveal any classified information. They did so to seek to discredit the criticism as the work of a guy who couldn't get honest work unless his wife helped.

It's called ad hominem, which is attacking a person's character rather than his ideas because you don't have a principled leg to stand on.

A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, like Ken Starr before, couldn't get the goods. So he threw journalists in jail for protecting sources. Then, like Starr, he improvised on the fly to perpetuate his activity and indict somebody -- Libby, it turns out.

Libby hadn't always told the grand jury the truth about what he may have said to this person or that about Plame. Libby said the whole thing was so inconsequential at the time that he simply didn't remember.

This is not to excuse perjury, be it Bill Clinton's or Scooter Libby's. As long as we have overzealous special prosecutors claiming noble adherence to the rule of law when what they really serve is a partisan political base motivated by revenge and electoral interest, then we will have essentially unfair questions seeking sworn answers from political figures.

These political figures need to start answering unfair questions truthfully under oath, which is to say lawfully. That may be the only way to end this cycle.

Bush got this right. He saved Libby from spending time behind bars, but, by not pardoning him, kept intact Libby's conviction and fine.

Libby shouldn't have gone to jail, just as Clinton shouldn't have been impeached. Both should pay a price.

But if Bush pardons Libby on his way out of office, forgiving perjury altogether, then that would be the greatest affront to American justice since Clinton pardoned Marc Rich.

Everything is always about the last time, you know.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@