A Scandal of Errors

The latest Washington scandal, that of presidential consigliere Karl Rove and vice presidential assistant Lewis "Scooter" Libby revealing the name of a C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame to the press in an attempt to discredit her husband, suffers from not having a catchy name. Some have suggested Plamegate, using the –gate suffix that has been affixed to many a scandal since the original Watergate. Others have suggested the more unwieldy Rove v. Plame, a play on the court case Roe v. Wade.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the essence of the scandal is that Rove, architect of President Bush’s electoral campaigns for governor of Texas and president of the United States, and Libby, told reporters that Plame worked for the C.I.A. either for revenge because her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was critical of the administration or to discredit Wilson by implying that he was given a C.I.A. assignment by his wife. There are questions about what laws, if any, were actually broken, and one reporter has been sent to jail for refusing to reveal her sources even though she never wrote a story about the case.

The scandal centers on that venerable Washington institution, the leak. A leak is the revelation of a secret. Leak has been used in this sense since 1859. Of course leaks are usually made to reporters, who seek to protect their sources from exposure. 31 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws (1998) that do not require journalists to reveal their sources to police or official investigators, but the federal government does not have one. This is why the reporter, Judith Miller of the New York Times, was sent to jail.

Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper has given us double secret background, the terms under which Rove spoke to him. Cooper used the term in an email to his editor that was made public during the investigation. Background is a journalism term used to describe a source who is not to be quoted. There is also deep background, meaning that the source is not even to be referred to anonymously, the information is only provided to the reporter as a guide for finding more leads or other sources. Cooper jocularly dubbed this double secret background, a play on the term double secret probation, which was used in the 1978 movie Animal House to refer to a punishment inflicted on a fraternity by the university.

Another word that has gotten a lot of use in this particular scandal is the verb to out, meaning to reveal a hidden identity, as in "Rove outed C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame." Most recognize the word in the sense of publicly revealing that someone is gay, but some question its use in this, more general, sense. Both these senses are cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1990. The specific sense relating to gays is a variant of the reflexive verb phrase to come out or to come out of the closet. This older term dates to 1968, but it’s not the oldest related sense. Out has been used to mean to reveal a secret since the late 14th century.

In response to the scandal, Republicans have released their legions of spin doctors (1984) who loyally repeat the daily talking points (1920), or message, on television, the radio, and to print reporters. The Democrats have their spin doctors and talking points too, but the Republicans are better at message discipline (1993).

Finally, there is the word scandal itself. It’s from the Latin scandalum, meaning a cause of offense and ultimately from the Greek meaning trap or snare. English usage dates to the 13th century and originally applied to something that brought discredit upon a clergyman or a church. The OED’s first citation in a secular and general sense is from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. This current scandal is chock full of errors, on all sides, but is hardly a comedy.

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