A Rough Road For 'Scooter'?
An inside player takes center stage
For nearly five years, Lewis "Scooter" Libby has been the perfect aide-de-camp for Vice President Dick Cheney--loyal, discreet, disciplined, self-effacing, and, most of all, anonymous. No more. Now Libby's name and photograph are staples of the nightly news and the blogosphere. His possible role in the furor over who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame has made him a central figure in a federal investigation that could rock the Bush administration.
Through it all, Libby has remained, typically, out of sight. Partly because of his low profile, the diminutive, introspective 55-year-old lawyer has emerged with the image of Rasputin, a man immersed in palace intrigue as he manipulates the levers of power. Libby, as Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser, "has been integrally involved in policymaking at the very top level," says a senior administration official. Mary Matalin, a Cheney confidant, told U.S. News: "He does for the vice president what the vice president does for the president. He's exceedingly analytical, detailed, strategic, bright; and he's discreet." And when he throws himself into a project, says Matalin, "he does it to the nth degree."
Tunnel vision? That could be part of the problem, critics say. "He is very tense and dedicated, and very pleased to be part of the inner circle," says a former White House adviser. "But I can see how he could lose his sense of balance. He can have tunnel vision." Critics especially fault Libby for going too far in methodically pushing the country toward war in Iraq. Allied with Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he was an architect of the administration's case for invasion and played a key role in compiling White House allegations--since disproved--that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction at the time.
Born in New Haven, Conn., and raised in Florida, Libby came from a prosperous family. His father was an investment banker who sent his son to the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., then Yale (1972) and Columbia University Law School (1975).
Libby's life was forever changed when he took a political science class at Yale from a professor named Paul Wolfowitz, a controversial neoconservative who became his mentor. After working as a lawyer in Philadelphia, Libby joined Wolfowitz at the State Department in 1981. He went back into private law practice but rejoined Wolfowitz in 1990, this time at the Defense Department. Libby eventually caught the eye of then Defense Secretary Cheney, who admired his intellect and quiet diligence. Cheney brought him back as an adviser during the 2000 presidential campaign; in 2001, Libby found himself in the White House as Cheney's top aide.
"He is intensely partisan," Jackson Hogan, his Yale roommate, told U.S. News, "in that if he is your counsel, he'll embrace your case and try to figure a way out of whatever noose you are ensnared in." That might help explain Libby's aggressive representation of Marc Rich, the billionaire fugitive whose later pardon by President Bill Clinton in January 2001 caused an uproar.
But Libby is no cardboard cutout of a single-minded right-wing zealot. His wife, Harriet Grant, is a former lawyer on the Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Libby dotes on his two preadolescent children, attends their soccer games, and sometimes practices with them. One of his fans is Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, who worked with Libby at the State Department in the early 1980s. Ross praised Libby's decency and sense of humor and added: "He's cared much more about trying to do a job than trying to get visibility for himself. He's approached his job with the sense that his role is to basically support others." Ross told U.S. News that Libby didn't strike him as an "ideologue." Asked his reaction to Libby's possible indictment, Ross said, "Disbelief. . . . I view him as someone who . . . would be very mindful of the thresholds not to cross."
Protection. Among Libby's preoccupations are secrecy and message control. On a vice presidential trip to Asia, it was Libby who kept a tight lid on all information. He allowed Cheney to speak to reporters, but the comments were initially kept off the record to avoid gaffes, despite protests from the journalists. Libby finally relented but allowed reporters to use only a few benign quotes from the vice president. Through it all, there was no doubt that it was Scooter Libby's job to protect his patron.
Yet Libby clearly has a fun-loving side. He enjoys the outdoors and a variety of sports, especially skiing. At a Colorado conference in 2001, he took a break to go mountain biking and broke his collarbone. After a quick trip to the doctor, he returned to the conference. He also occasionally goes hunting with friends, including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. In 1996, he published a mystery novel, The Apprentice, set in 1903 at a rural Japanese mountain inn, where "a raging blizzard has brought together wayfarers who share only fear, distrust, and suspicion of one another," says the book jacket.
His father gave him his nickname after noting that Lewis frequently darted around his crib as a 1-year-old. "I love it," Libby once said of the moniker. "There is a tendency in Washington for people to take themselves a little too seriously, and it's pretty hard to take yourself seriously when your name is Scooter." Yet today, as he is swept up in the CIA leak case, Scooter Libby's fate is being taken very seriously indeed.
With Bret Schulte and Silla Brush
This story appears in the October 31, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.