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Hot Air

It's not every day that someone gets called a "blowhard" by the editorial board of The Washington Post. The paper's institutional voice, after all, is itself not exactly meek. And it opines, for the most part, on a capital city where there is no shortage of people "who bluster and boast in an unpleasant way," to use the Oxford American Dictionary definition. Yet in a town of braggarts and gasbags, one particular self-promoter was apparently too much for the paper of record: Joseph Wilson, former ambassador, secret-agent spouse, and oft-interviewed antagonist in the CIA leak case.

The Post zinged Wilson with the b-word back in March, after a trial concluded with the conviction, for perjury rather than agent-outing, of vice-presidential aide Scooter Libby. The paper was hardly alone. From the beginning of the melodrama over Valerie Plame, Wilson-mocking has been a favorite pastime of right-leaning opinionators. The well-coiffed, retired diplomat has been called "the charming P.T. Barnum of the National Security set" (David Brooks), a "weirdly self-obsessed...shrill politically motivated poseur" (Mark Steyn), and someone who "represents the worst in American politics and diplomatic service" (Joseph DiGenova). Elsewhere on this website, TNR Editor-in-Chief Martin Peretz added that the ex-diplomat wasn't much of an ambassador, either: Fancy title notwithstanding, he'd served in puny Sao Tome and Principe, "two small volcanic islands situated in the equatorial Atlantic, consisting of 386 square miles and populated by 160,000 people." In fact, Wilson was simultaneously accredited to slightly larger, slightly less obscure Gabon, but the point stands: He's a nobody.

The anti-Wilson sniping extends beyond those who buy the right-wing spin that he's a liar. The Village Voice, back in its pre-New Times days, highlighted his "pompous-ass style." On The Plank, TNR Senior Editor Jason Zengerle called Wilson a "buffoon" following his ugly on-air jab about the sexuality of two top GOPers. When Wilson campaigned for a Connecticut congressional candidate last fall, the nonpartisan, insider-y Hotline described it thusly: "At the 14:59 Mark Of His 15 Minutes Of Fame Ex-Amb/Valerie Plame husband Joseph Wilson headlined a 10/5 breakfast for Farrell in Fairfield." Reacting on Monday to Wilson's endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Andrew Sullivan, who spent the previous weeks calling for the scalps of everyone involved in Libby's commutation, sounded decidedly unimpressed: "He endorses the machine candidate," Sullivan blogged. "Why am I not surprised?" Even Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall, who calls Wilson a friend and has doggedly covered the scandal, tacitly acknowledged the image problem while insisting that the ex-ambassador told the truth all along. "There's a tendency, even among too many people of good faith and good politics, to shy away from asserting and admitting this simple fact because Wilson has either gone on too many TV shows or preened too much in some photo shoot," he wrote after Libby's commutation.

So, just for the sake of argument, let's stipulate that Joe Wilson is a Beltway mediocrity who has shamelessly gone from blowing the whistle to blowing his own horn.

Well, thank God for that.

Imagine an alternative universe where Wilson were the sort of guy critics seem to wish he were: Some quiet, gray, camera-shy, team-playing, behind-the-scenes-working Washington careerist, the type that would hesitate to sign a brief letter to Foreign Affairs, let alone pose for a picture in Vanity Fair. Such a man, so loyal and so logical, would have had a hard time writing an op-ed that brought a fight over prewar intelligence into full view. Responsible diplomats don't air their policy dirty laundry out in the open (well, at least not with their names attached).

And just say that, despite this temperamental reticence, some situation had arisen where the noble Wilson of establishmentarian fantasy had spoken out and then found his wife's career exposed by a conservative columnist. Would this unassuming figure have sought to connect the dots via the media? Unlikely. A muted, procedural complaint while his wife transferred to a non-covert corner of the bureaucracy, maybe. But the Wilson preferred by the Post's editorialists would never have been so hot-headed as to accuse the president's top aide of a treasonous offense. He'd surely have lacked the shamelessness necessary to write an autobiography that spun his thin CV into an Erin Brockovich epic of truth-telling heroism--or to subsequently chat up Hollywood stars about a screen adaptation. He'd know that only a blowhard would do that.

The real Wilson, though, turned out to be more Bonfire of the Vanities than Smiley's People--willing, in fact, eager for the sort of camera-hogging, ad hominem bomb-throwing, and below-the-belt punching that grabs a distracted country's attention. Let's appreciate him for that, not in spite of it. Nice as it is to imagine an anonymous whistleblower's nuanced accusations prompting the same headlines, the career arc of Paris Hilton suggests that celebrification makes all the difference. However self-interested he may have been, the flames Wilson fanned were more than just a partisan victory for people who thrill at seeing Bush get singed. It's hard to remember now, but when Wilson began his media run, there was little talk about the selling of the war, few questions about official mendacity, and not much of a narrative about the way the administration deals with dissent. Lord knows that most of the establishment types who sneer at Wilson weren't talking about such things. There are plenty of other reasons, some more important than Wilson, why we talk about them now. But not many have resulted from the low-key pose we seem to wish on him.

Just as the denouement of the Plame case was dominating the news earlier this month, another former diplomat revealed that he had felt his own grave doubts about Iraq around the time of Wilson's trip to Niger. This much more celebrated Washington veteran, though, kept his qualms off the record. Thus it was newsworthy when Colin Powell revealed at the Aspen Ideas Festival that he'd counseled President Bush against the conflict. "I tried to avoid this war," Powell said. "I took him through the consequences of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers."

Had he not hewed to the behavioral standards of the Washington elite, Powell might have called attention to his dissent back when it counted. He might have resigned in a high-profile huff, taken to the airwaves to play up war's dangers, written a self-aggrandizing tome that made him look like the government's last honest man. He could have optioned a feature film in which the upstanding ex-General faces down the Cheney cabal. Perhaps he'd have been photographed chatting up J-Lo about the script, or been quoted calling Rumsfeld a "scumbag." The sideshow might have penetrated the consciousness of a general public that was even then lining up for Freedom Fries and making death threats to the Dixie Chicks.

But he didn't--and the results, in spilled blood and wasted treasure, diminished national reputation and paralyzed national politics, are still with us. Alas, even Powell's reputation hasn't been saved by his choice. He's one of the few people in the world who might have stopped the Iraq train wreck; instead, he's just an ex-secretary of State who confers decorously with fellow has-beens in Aspen. There's a reason a nobody like Joe Wilson is the one pitching his story to Hollywood: The blowhard, it turns out, is the one who mattered.

By Michael Currie Schaffer