The American Scholar

Scooter Libby and Me

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. -- F. A. Hayek, Why I Am Not a Conservative

Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that the history we're moving through finds its ultimate significance within us: "We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here."

Certainly this has been true for me. As I've looked out upon the public history of the past six years, my eyes have beheld the same ribbon of events everyone else has seen.

But the meaning of this history has been strongly shaped and intensified by a purely accidental twist in my own private experience. I went away to boarding schools in the early 1960s, and at one of these my best friend was a boy named Scooter -- Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- who grew up to become Paul Wolfowitz's protégé, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and one of the Bush administration's strongest advocates for the war in Iraq.

Life is doubtless peculiar for anyone who has a childhood or college friend go on to become stupendously successful and powerful. How can you not judge yourself by the standard of his monumental achievement? How can you not feel small and unworthy in comparison?

In my case, these feelings have been further complicated by my being deeply opposed to the Bush administration, which I regard as dishonest and dangerous. But there's still another fact of my private life that colors the way I see the world: The reason I went to boarding school is that my father and mother were living out of the United States, posted to American embassies in Arab capitals like Baghdad, Amman, Kuwait, and Cairo.

This means that for me, Scooter and his neoconservative colleagues have not only set the nation on a disastrous course, they have also destroyed my father's lifelong effort to make U.S. policy in the Middle East more responsive to the realities on the ground.

And there's one last consideration, which has to do with what my father actually did in those embassies -- something that gives the outing of Valerie Plame a personal, not just a public significance.

So, for six years I've been obsessed with Scooter. Every time I read a newspaper, I see Scooter and me hunched over a game of Stratego (which he usually won), or I see him faking right before hooking left so I can hit him with a pass in the end zone.

Walking my dog through the woods around our house, I chant the mantra of questions I literally ache to ask him: How could you work for an administration that denies global warming and supports tax breaks for large SUVs? How could you work for an administration that cuts funding for birth control to the poorest people in our country and the world? How could you so brazenly exaggerate the threat of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, and how could you so foolishly imagine that American troops would be welcomed in Baghdad with cheers and flowers?

I still fling these questions into the silent woods. They are personal questions, private questions, and no one but me ever hears them. Yet at the same time they are public questions, asked by millions of Americans, and they vent the anger and the anguish that have marked the public history of a deeply divided nation.

Eight years ago I was appalled by the viciousness of Republican attacks on Bill Clinton. Now, I am ashamed that I thrill to equally vicious attacks on George Bush. But what can I do? If fundamentalist Christians are outraged by the prospect of gay marriage becoming legal, how can I be less outraged by their denying the humanity of my gay friends?

In my hotter moments -- I have fewer and fewer cool moments these days -- I ask Scooter whether his political identification with homophobia is distinguishable from a political identification with racism or anti- Semitism. And convinced that it is not, I sit down at my desk to do it: to write the letter telling Scooter that I can no longer be his friend, not even in the rather distant way we have been friends for all these years.

Today, my old friend is under indictment for obstructing justice by lying about his knowledge of the Valerie Plame affair. His trial begins today. He will face the distinct possibility of public disgrace and a career-terminating jail sentence. So what should I hope for, I ask myself: my old friend's acquittal or his conviction?

The window of my study faces north. If our house stood on higher ground, I could see 15 miles up the winding Connecticut River to the squat bulk of Mount Pocumtuck. Forty years later, Scooter surely remembers our old school song as well as I do:

Eaglebrook, upon your mountain
Still across the valley gaze,
Where we worked and played together,
In our boyhood's merry days.

We met in a dorm of cubicles -- cubies -- on our first night at Eaglebrook, in September 1961. Scooter was in the cubie next to mine, and because the walls stopped a foot short of the ceiling, we could easily talk to each other after lights out. We probably whispered, Where are you from, what does your father do, what sports do you like?

But the heart of our chatter was fear and loneliness. We were 11 years old. We were away from home. We were going to sleep in this dorm for the next nine months, and neither of us would ever live with his parents again. Lying there in the dark, we sent threads of feeling up over the wall that separated our cubies. We became friends. Entering what we already sensed would be a cruelly competitive environment, we became allies.

Life at Eaglebrook was as beautiful and intense as an ice storm. On top of a mountain, a mile from the nearest paved road, we awakened some winter mornings to find four feet of thick snow blanketing the paths. Indoors, the steam radiators clanked to life, and the rooms smelled like wet wool and dusty wood.

Scooter and I gave up learning to ski and stayed warm playing basketball in the gym. Two of the smallest boys in the school, we swam in our uniforms, our eyes barely level with the chests of the guys on the other teams. When spring finally came, pushing skunk cabbage up from the wetlands around the athletic fields, we lingered in the twilight on the way back to the dorm, tossing a baseball back and forth as the peepers shrilled in the woods around Whipple Pond.

But the intensity of Eaglebrook was also social. An idiom of incessant and often vicious teasing. What we called cutting -- a perpetual cutting down and cutting to shreds. Anderson, Bishop, Bromell, Casey, Coon -- all of us were players in an ugly competition for something we couldn't even name. We imitated Mr. Canoon's stutter, we mocked Mr. Hepburn's girth, we made lewd jokes about Mr. Wiechert's daughters. We moved across the green campus laughing, but also cutting and slashing, parrying and thrusting. What a fairy. He's so immature. Get bent. Don't be Jewish. Dork. Brown nose. Jock. Retard.

In his book Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy, Robert D. Dean offers this account of what such schools were really about:

Boys were taken from their homes and families in early adolescence and sent off to remote rural schools, an innovation that replaced the private tutors and private day schools previously employed by wealthy American families to educate their sons. One object of such an extreme solution to the problem of child rearing was to strip away a boy's personal identity and replace it with an understanding that "the collective identity of the group must take precedence over individual identities."

At Eaglebrook, the intricate simplicity of the system designed to strip away selfhood would have made even Thackeray marvel. Everything revolved around the single principle of status, which was finely elaborated through grades, sports, shoes, shirts, and even socks.

Each and every blazerclad boy knew his place on the status ladder, strove to rise a rung, or dreaded sliding down. At the top were the boys who had everything that counted: family money, athletic ability, and WASPy good looks. Beneath them stood boys with any one of these gifts. And then in the middle came the boys like Scooter and me -- small and fairly brainy, but interested in sports and not hopelessly nerdy. Below us were the untouchables, the social misfits who read all the way through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, played countless hands of bridge, and managed the athletic teams.

We all heard leadership intoned again and again at chapel, assembly, commencement, and building dedications. Wearing our school blazers and ties, sitting on folding metal chairs and listening to the headmaster ("Chief Yellow Finger" we called him, because his hands were stained from the cigarettes he smoked incessantly), we knew what leadership really meant. It had nothing to do with leading, much less with taking risks, and not at all with acting ethically.

A leader was just a boy with an unusual talent for submission. A boy could win the top perch as a prefect and become an official leader just because he was preternaturally preppy or could throw a football with a tight spiral. Not even the most golden among us was capable of actual leadership.

Within this disciplining system, Scooter and I had two things that were really our own -- touch football and friendship, almost one and the same. Through friendship, we exercised judgment and expressed our values. Through friendship, we unconsciously clung to the self that the school insisted we forget. Through friendship, we escaped the otherwise unceasing competition of classroom and playing field. And through friendship, we recovered a portion of what we had lost on leaving home: affection, even love.

Did we know this at the time? Definitely not. We were too busy playing touch football outside and sock basketball in our dorm. We were too busy being boys who had to pretend that they were men. (Immature was one of the unkindest cuts one could give or get.)

But 40 years later, Scooter and I both know that if one of us calls the other and asks for help, he will get it. Forty years later, we both carry within us the weight of bonds formed years ago. If today I feel those bonds as a burden, that's only because I have also felt them as a gift.

After our graduation in 1965, Scooter went on to Andover, majored in political science at Yale, and got his law degree at Columbia. I went on to schools in Beirut and Cairo. When the June 1967 war forced me to return to the States for my senior year, I chose to go to Andover because Scooter was there. I then majored in classics and philosophy at Amherst and received a doctorate in English from Stanford.

Over the years, Scooter and I have stayed in touch, seeing each other more often even as our differences have become more obvious and grave. Twenty years ago, he came up to Massachusetts for an Eaglebrook reunion and spent the night at our house. That was our first real contact in a long time, and we made the most of it. Scooter was intensely present, a good listener, witty, self-deprecating, and thoughtful. I liked him. I saw him a few years later when I was in Washington for a conference, and he made a special point of introducing me to the woman he would later marry. Six years ago, when he was still unknown to the public, my wife flew him up to be the surprise guest at my 50th birthday celebration.

Soon after our troops were in Baghdad, I offered to fly down to D.C. to give him the perspective of someone who, while by no means an Arabist or Middle East expert, had at least lived in the region and knew something of that world through his senses. Scooter knew that I strongly disapproved of the invasion, but he courteously welcomed my offer. We had a long lunch in the White House Mess, and he listened attentively and took notes as I spoke.

More recently, as I've been dealing with the monster of colon cancer, he has found time in his incredibly busy schedule to give me an occasional call to see how I am doing. During one of our conversations, I told him about a Buddhist parable I'd found very helpful. For reasons that will become clear, it's worth retelling now.

A poor farmer whose only worldly possession is a mare wakes up one morning to discover that the mare has gone. He runs to his parents' house and breaks the terrible news. When he's finished, they ask, "Are you sure it's bad news?"

"Of course it's bad news!" he replies, stomping angrily away.

Ten days later, his mare returns, bringing with her a magnificent stallion.

The farmer runs to his parents and tells them the wonderful news.

"Are you sure it's good news?" they ask.

"Of course it's good news," he declares, leaving in a huff.

Days go by, and the farmer decides to try to break the stallion. He bridles the beast, climbs on its back, and is promptly thrown to the ground and trampled. The village doctor informs him that he will be a cripple for life. When he can do so, he makes his way to his parents and tells them the dreadful news.

"Are you sure it's bad news?" they reply.

He doesn't answer, but he mutters to himself all the way home. Two weeks later, a detachment of the Emperor's army arrives to draft all the able-bodied men of the village. Of course, they pass over the crippled farmer. He hobbles to his parents' house to share his joy.

"Are you sure it's good news?" they ask.

The story has no end, of course, but the point is clear: we should try to experience what happens to us without judging it. Nearly a year after I told Scooter this story, he was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. I let a few days go by, and then I called to say I was thinking of him. The timbre of his voice as well as his words told me that he was very glad to hear from me. But he had no time to talk; he was on another line. He would get back to me later.

Just as I was putting down the receiver, I heard his voice again.



"Are you sure it's bad news?"

That's Scooter in a nutshell. I was moved.

But close as we sometimes are, Scooter and I are also very different. He was reportedly billing at $800 an hour while in private practice as a lawyer; my annual income has never exceeded five figures. He has spent most of the past six years strategizing with the vice president of the United States in the Old Executive Office Building; I have spent them teaching classes and grading papers at a public university. But there's a deeper divide that's more important. It has to do with beliefs and values, and it's rooted in our different ways of seeing the world.

This difference came into sharp focus when I happened to read an article by Lynne Cheney, the wife of his boss. As an English professor, I couldn't resist its title: "The Roots of Today's Lying Epidemic: The English Department Virus." In it, Cheney claims that lowly English departments are "a primary source of the epidemic of lying currently upon us."

I assume that Scooter knows Lynne Cheney well, laughs with her at the dinner table, brings his family over to the vice president's mansion, and considers her a friend much as he thinks of me as an old buddy. And so, accused now of lying himself, he must know that she regards me and my colleagues as condoners of lying, and my life's work as a major contribution to the problem of lying that besets our country. Of course I'm angered. And hurt. But once I get past these feelings, and past the words kettle and black, I begin to see that Cheney's views are useful because they bring into view the essence of the conflict that is tearing us all -- friends, nation, world -- apart.

Cheney begins by claiming correctly that most English professors believe that "knowledge and power are always intertwined." But she goes on to assert that as a consequence of this belief, we also maintain that "there is no such thing as truth." This is false, and I suspect that she knows it's false. Certainly it's illogical. Cheney's error, possibly deliberate, is her sleight-ofhand removal of the definite article the from its crucial place beside the noun truth. Yes, most English professors and intellectuals today do believe that knowledge and power are intertwined. But no, we do not maintain that there is no such thing as truth. We believe, rather, that there is no such thing as the truth, no such thing as truth conceived of as an eternal verity standing apart from power and outside the push and pull of human history.

Our skepticism toward this conception of the truth follows from our observation that people living in different times and places have held very different notions of what that is. For Buddhists the truth is one thing, for Christians it is another, and for Moslems it is yet another. With so many versions of the truth competing so fiercely with one another, we ask whether the term itself is actually helpful. Two hundred years ago, most Christian ministers confidently asserted that the truth as revealed in the Bible justified the enslavement of blacks. They also believed that this truth required all women to obey their husbands and cede to them all authority, including the right to own property, deliberate on matters of public importance, and vote.

Cheney sees, I'm sure, that despite its claim to be the truth, this was only a truth that held sway for many hundreds of years until it was displaced by another truth -- that the rights of man are equally shared by blacks and women. As two persons with strong (if different) views about what is good and true, Cheney and I both know that our acknowledgment that truth can change over time does not logically entail a complete dismissal of truth as a criterion for words and deeds. Cheney would not speak out on public issues and I would not take the time to quarrel with her if we did not feel that truth mattered.

The difference between us, then, has more to do with temperament than reason. Cheney may have omitted the little word the from her essay because she knew that its presence would vitiate her attack on me and my colleagues; but I don't think she's expunged it from the way she herself feels and thinks about the world. Cheney wants to avail herself of the malleabil- ity of truth insofar as that has conferred on her rights and privileges that earlier constructions of truth denied her. But at the same time, she is frightened by the implications of such a view. She worries that without the pole star of a fixed conception of the truth, we will lose our bearings and descend into chaos. She wants to hold on to the idea of the truth as something ahistorical, unchanging, permanent, and universal -- even though it was precisely this conception of truth that had stood in the way of her rights as a woman, later blocked African Americans' rights, and now blocks her own daughter's rights as a lesbian.

I, on the other hand, feel that the old idea of the truth has become an impediment. It provokes hostility rather than understanding. It encourages self-righteousness instead of tolerance. I am uneasy about sailing ahead with nothing but dead reckoning to guide us, but I'm pretty sure that this is all we have ever done. In the last analysis, I would prefer to live in a future of competing truths, where anyone claiming to know the truth would be laughed at. Like Judge Learned Hand, I believe that "the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." In short, I am a liberal by temperament, and Cheney is a fundamentalist.

A liberal, as I use the term, is someone who never gives up trying to see the other person's point of view. A liberal never stops doubting himself, for self-doubt is precisely what allows us to make room in our minds for someone else's views and to keep the possibility of communication between us alive. A fundamentalist, on the other hand, is someone to whom the very idea of point of view is immaterial, or worse -- the foundation of relativism. A warrior who pledges fealty to the god of one Truth, a fundamentalist searches for personal conviction, not mutual understanding. So she regards skepticisms as apostasy, hesitations as heresy, and doubts as moral turpitude.

Taped to the wall above my desk is a photograph of President George W. Bush's war council torn from the March 23, 2003, New York Times. Gathered around the conference table at Camp David sit a handful of the world's most powerful persons: Paul D. Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, George Tenet, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Andrew Card, the 43rd president himself -- and one other figure, just to Card's right. I peer into the photo, marveling. That's Scooter Libby. My old best friend and roommate. That's you -- the guy I used to play Stratego with -- sitting in the world's innermost ring of power.

At the very moment when globalization has presented us with a new dream of world unity, the so-called clash of civilizations has ripped apart that fantasy. Twenty years ago, we imagined that the end of the Cold War would fracture a bipolar world into myriad units and morphing conflicts and alliances, and we hoped that the reach of global trade and technology could bring these pieces into an orderly mosaic. Instead, war's end revealed what the conflicting political ideologies of that struggle had held in check and kept invisible: a deeper struggle between tradition and modernity, faith and agnosticism, monism and pluralism, fundamentalism and, yes, liberalism.

Scooter has taken a position on one side of that fault line. He was a fundamentalist serving in a fundamentalist administration, and his views are spelled out not just in his deeds but in his words. Scooter is a co-signer and very probably the co-author, with Wolfowitz, of a work that has been published in several forms: as the Defense Policy Guidance of 1992, as the so called Wolfowitz memorandum sent to President Clinton in 1997, and as "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century," published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).

The salient idea of this document has become well known: that in the wake of the Cold War, "the United States faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should be to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible." The document claims to be "a blueprint for maintaining U.S. preeminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests."

What I want to ask Scooter today is how the United States can shape "the international security order in line with American principles and interests" if those principles include -- as the document implies -- the right of a nation to seek preeminence. After all, if we aim to shape the world in accordance with that principle, aren't we inviting the other nations of the world to emulate us and thereby to seek preeminence themselves? Scooter's is essentially a fundamentalist "security order," a zero-sum strategy in which security is achieved only by hegemony.

The fundamentalist nature of this strategy is underscored by its now glaring failure to make any mention of terrorism. The word does not appear even once in the 90-page PNAC document. The PNAC plan is preoccupied instead with the threat posed by "lesser states" to "the exercise of American leadership around the globe."

So why, I want to ask Scooter, didn't all this tough-minded talk about "tomorrow's threats and tomorrow's battlefields" foresee that tomorrow might be September 11 and that the battlefield might be lower Manhattan? The answer is that, however smart Scooter might be, and he is very smart indeed, a fundamentalist mind sees the world simplistically. Such a mind cannot see the world in terms of fluid relationships and reciprocities, but only as a standoff between the forces struggling for preeminence. It cannot conceive that "the presence of American forces in critical regions around the world" as "the visible expression of the extent of America's status as a superpower" might inflame anti-American sentiment and possibly inspire such acts of suicidal terrorism.

The fundamentalist mind will not admit that to define our own security as "deterring or, when need be, compelling regional foes to act in ways that protect American interests" is to mirror back to Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-il their most paranoid imaginings of what our "American principles" are all about. When such a mind writes strategy for the world today, it's like a musclebound bodybuilder doing battle with mosquitoes: the more iron he pumps, the bigger the target he offers and the more succulent his veins.

For all their obvious intelligence, Scooter, Wolfowitz, and Cheney are blind to these possibilities because they are locked in a monist mindset, according to which only one power can be dominant, only one nation's "principles and interests" can prevail, and only one truth can be recognized as the truth. Just like Lynne Cheney, her husband and Scooter believe in one world order controlled by just one nation and motivated by just one principle: the urge to be preeminent. They believe in one Truth, and they're willing to go to the wall for it -- even, perhaps, if that means bending it.

As 2006 draws to a close, Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" feels more like a clash of different fundamentalisms. And that is the dynamic through which fundamentalism prevails. It wins by controlling the terms of the engagement and forcing its opponents to become fundamentalists themselves. Americans don't need to look across the ocean to see where this kind of struggle leads. We have our own examples here at home. First the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center pushed the Bush administration, already leaning that way, squarely into the arms of its fundamentalist strategists and its right-wing political base. Then the excesses and the lies of the Bush administration started turning liberals and progressives into the very thing they despise. More intolerant, selfrighteous, and arrogant by the day, we are quickly becoming fundamentalists ourselves.

In my own experience, this pernicious trend resolves itself finally into the matter of whether I should remain Scooter's friend and what verdict I should hope for at his trial. There's a part of me that wants to see him get nailed. There's a part of me that wants to end the endless imagined conversations I've been having with him, that wants to stop peppering him with "How can you?" questions, that wants to arrive at the Zen clarity of the warrior who focuses on one thing only: victory.

But there's another part of me -- call it the lingering liberal part -- that tries to be fair to Scooter's point of view, that doesn't want to consign him to the camp of "the enemy," that wants to keep lines of communication open. The dialogue between these selves has become a Möbius strip of intertwining questions: Would remaining Scooter's friend be the surest way I have of remaining true to the principles of liberalism, as I understand that word? Or would it just be an excuse for my failure to face a difficult situation, and one that makes me a sucker as well? Would recognizing Scooter as my enemy be the honest thing to do, and the only thing he would truly respect? Or would that decision turn me into the very thing I worry he has become?

These private questions are much like those in our political conversations today. What is the best way to combat terrorism? Should we take the war to the enemy, even when we aren't sure where the enemy lurks? Or should we engage in a long, protracted, possibly endless strategy of ropea- dope -- limiting, containing, and slowly putting out the fires of anti- Americanism?

When I turn my personal questions about Scooter into these public questions about foreign policy, I regain my footing and know my way. I know that terrorists aren't out to grab American assets. What they hate is a certain image of America, America as a cultural chauvinist trying to impose its principles and interests on the rest of the world. This is the stereotype, becoming truer by the day, on which Osama bin Laden has played so cunningly. Several years ago, the CIA reported that the Arab world regarded us as "ruthless, aggressive, conceited, easily provoked and biased." The CIA also warned that as long as "the forces fueling hatred of the U.S. and fueling al Qaeda recruiting are not being addressed, . . . the underlying causes that drive terrorists will persist."

If I and the authors of this report are correct, then the best way for the United States to combat the religious fundamentalism that underwrites terrorism is to remain a liberal state guided by liberal principles. The worst thing we can do is precisely what the Bush administration has promoted: become a fundamentalist nation that mirrors bin Laden's fantasies back to him and thus confirms them.

The challenge we liberals face today is to match the fundamentalists' passionate intensity while still remaining true to our deepest convictions: a preference for tolerance over righteousness, fairness over success, and communication over certitude. Indeed, our deepest value might be selfdoubt. It tortures us, but it keeps us open-minded. It makes us laugh at ourselves. And it reminds us to wince whenever we hear someone proclaim, as the vice president is wont to do, that simply stated, there is no doubt.

Self-doubt drives me back one more time to Lynne Cheney's article. Do her words contain no wisdom at all? Can it be that we liberals are entirely right, the fundamentalists entirely wrong? After all, what should the liberal mind be open to -- if not to the exposure of its own blindness?

Such exposure is exactly what Cheney's article has to offer if we read it carefully and do justice to the complexity of its motives. Much as it might gratify my own self-righteousness to think so, Cheney is not just writing mindless, right-wing propaganda. She is also energized by a conviction that we humans are self-deceiving and lost if we do not acknowledge our need for a transcendental realm that is true with a capital T.

Cheney wants us to be humble in the face of our own limitations, and in particular the limitations on what we can really know. She believes that it's not enough for us to keep creating and revising truths that work for a moment and then get set out for recycling. She believes that such a conception of the human enterprise exaggerates what humans are capable of: we cannot be the ultimate arbiters of what is true because we ourselves do not know enough, and it is hubris to imagine that we do. We have to submit to something outside ourselves, untouched by our puny powers, and beyond the pathetic purview of our history. We have to submit to the Truth.

If Lynne Cheney and I were to meet, here's what I imagine she would say to me: "You liberals may have good reasons to be skeptical about the very possibility of the truth, but you insist on using the words true and truth as if they had real meaning without recourse to such a possibility. If you were intellectually honest, you would restrict yourself to words like correct and accurate. If you want to glorify your mere assertions with the numinous associations of the word truth, you should embrace the possibility of the numinous itself. By using true and truth while denying the very possibility of the Truth, you are trying to have your cake and eat it too. You want to use a word that comes trailing clouds of glory to ennoble your scrawny human enterprise and to conceal its dangerous vanity."

And Cheney would be right. We liberals do want to hold onto the word true because we know that behind our policy proposals lurks a deep sense of right and wrong, a deep instinct about what makes life valuable and meaningful. But we do not fully articulate these beliefs, and we seldom even admit that we have them. Because they rest at bottom on conviction, not reason, and therefore cannot be justified without circularity, we hesitate to bring them into the open. We are nervous about admitting that in this sense our politics are as faith-based as those of any fundamentalist.

This is a failure of nerve, and it has two consequences: to people like Cheney we appear hypocritical, and to many others we appear uncommitted and indecisive. This is why the liberal temperament is challenged as never before. Everywhere in the world we are confronted by the fundamentalism that deposits bombs in commuter trains and that crafts Strangelovian strategies for global preeminence. In the face of these provocations, we are called upon to be firm but not inflexible, tough but not stubborn, determined but not dogmatic. We need something like faith, but it has to be a faith that makes room for the faith of others. Our deepest quarrel with fundamentalists in this country, then, is not about Iraq, health care, abortion, or gay rights. It's about the very possibility of trying to be true without needing the truth. It's about being able to commit to a truth while always remembering that this truth could be partial, incomplete, and provisional -- a steppingstone forward, not an edifice of certitude.

So, to return to the question before me: as the day of Scooter's trial draws near, I try to commit myself to these liberal principles in my private life just as I have argued for their value in our public life. They encourage me to remain aware at all times of the irreducible human complexity of Scooter's life and work. They encourage me to think of him as a person and a friend, not as a figure and a foe. While I want the Bush administration to be held accountable for its blunders and its lies, I also want my friend Scooter to be proven innocent and to go home to his family. In short, I want things both ways.

If this attitude involves me in self-contradiction, so be it. The risk of a seeming inconsistency is one that liberals must take if we are to meet the complexities of the world as we know it. But we should undertake this risk agonizingly, not flippantly, taking the full measure of what is at stake as we make up our minds.

Looking at the snow swirling past my north-facing window, I'm reminded of Wallace Stevens's famous poem about the snowman who beholds the winter landscape and sees "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." We liberals think we're very good at living without illusions, seeing only what is "there" and needing nothing else. And so we mock fundamentalists who see "the nothing that is" and who seek to supplement it with something more, something transcendental, something True.

But if we really want to come to grips with the exigencies of our time, we will have to learn, like the snowman, to see both ways at once.

The Last Book

Here are two versions of the future.

(A) It's July 2020, and after a long day at work, Citizen X is looking forward to reading John Updike's new novel on the subway. He settles into his seat and pulls out a sheet of paper thickly coated with plastic. In the morning he read The New York Times on it. Now the Knopf colophon, a borzoi, looks up and barks. The Gothic font has changed to Jansen, Updike's favorite from the days of printed books. Chapter three of Bech: An E-Book presents itself in response to X's voice, and it's a treat. Updike proves to be in great form.

(B) It's July 2020, and after a long day of work, Citizen X is looking forward to reading the new Updike on the subway. He takes a seat, opens a hardback book, thumbs the ragged edges of its pages, and starts reading.

Version (A) sounds far-fetched. You may also find it exciting -- or disheartening, as Updike did when I described it to him over the phone. But the necessary technology is nearly here. The most futuristic aspect of (A), rewritable ink, will be available soon. Two companies, Xerox and E Ink, are making early models of a paperlike plastic sheet whose tiny black-and-white capsules can be formed and reformed into letters and symbols. Eventually, you'll be able to read a different book on the same sheet week after week.

When that day comes, what will we mean by knowledge? What is a culture if the information that forms it never stands still? Since the first manuscript books appeared in A.D. 400 or so, we have come to live with an implicit hierarchy of information, with books at the top. The primacy of the book follows naturally from its form. It has a protective shell that keeps dust and sunlight off the fragile printed pages, allowing the words within to remain legible for centuries. This primacy will disappear when the book becomes as evanescent as an image on a TV screen. Without its physical advantages, how long will the book's authority persist, and what, in turn -- if anything -- will take its place? Probably nothing, because nothing will ever again have the physical properties to do so. This absence will in turn change our mental lives. The first books were proof (some would say misleading evidence) that there were ideas that lasted, that deserved special respect. The invention of the e-book will push us to the reverse conclusion -- that knowledge is in perpetual flux. It will make relativists of us all. Looked at this way, the e-book may represent an unprecedented and even dangerous innovation. It is not merely the latest gizmo thrown off by the forces that, over the past 25 years, have been separating words from paper: word processors, electronic dictionaries, CD-ROMs, the Web. Unlike them, the e-book will knock a key strut out from under us all.

E-books have not yet come of age. Their cultural importance stands at least 20 years off, at the time of Citizen X's subway ride. But no one is going to wait. Despite names like the Rocket eBook, the SoftBook, the Everybook, the Glassbook Reader, and the Librius Millennium Reader, the first generation of electronic books has less in common with Citizen X's e-book than with the 1980s laptop he might keep in his den as a curiosity. Still, the new e-books are the first stand-alone electronic reading devices that both the computer industry and publishers are backing. Consumers also seem to like them, especially now that prices for some models have fallen below $300 and will certainly go lower. They offer readers the chance to download new best-sellers and literary novels from an online bookstore for about the same price as a discounted hardcover. Trade publishers estimate that within a few years, 10 percent of all books will be sold to be read on electronic devices. The e-book makers and software designers -- especially Microsoft, which is leading the e-book effort -- hope for far more. They insist that they will have 90 percent of the entire market by the time Citizen X gets his souped-up device.

According to believers, the e-book will do the heavy work of conveying information and entertaining us while the book retreats to the status of a collectible. Will it really happen this way? It's obvious to most of us that the book as a form has great virtue. The paper, the ink, the cover, what Updike called "the charming little clothy box of the thing" -- we implicitly understand how much these add to the reading experience. This is not something e-book makers care about. They dismiss such observations with the buzz phrase "books as furniture." They admire books for technical reasons, though: Books never crash. They don't weigh much and don't need electricity. Several years ago, I took down a first edition of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, dated 1594, from a shelf in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. It was a small book with a library rebinding to protect the pages and a little stick-em with the word UNIQUE attached to its spine. It is the only one in existence, and I was reading it. For a moment, Shakespeare and I were -- perhaps even literally connected. Consider the computer disk. Its life span may be 15 years -- or 50. No one knows. Either way you'll need to have the right computer to read what's on it. "Electronic storage" appears to be an oxymoron.

The book may be durable, but it has one big shortcoming: It is not connected to anything else. Books are not wired, a fact that seems almost immoral to a geek, like kludgy code or a slow processor. The computer has supplanted the calculator, the typewriter, and, to some extent, the fax machine; soon, perhaps, it will replace or merge with the telephone, the television, the compact disc player, and the VCR. Newspapers, magazines, and reference works are already becoming part of the digital-information stream. The educational and environmental benefits seem to me too significant to reject out of nostalgia or anxiety. But the narrative book is a separate case. Its influence on the way we reason, imagine, and invent is incalculable. I can't imagine the novel without the book, nor the biography.

Shouldn't the book be preserved as a kind of cultural safety net, to remind us that, whatever we are thinking today, we thought something different yesterday? Or why not view the e-book as a complement to rather than a replacement for the printed book -- the equivalent of an audio book? John Warnock, co-founder and co-chairman of Adobe, explained to me why that's unlikely. Adobe occupies a midpoint between computer and print culture. Its primary products are the typefaces that give computer printouts an analog look. "The book is the one thing computer people haven't been able to replace," Warnock said. "They may look at it and think, if we can do this, we're done."

In 1994, when I first reported on the emerging electronic-book industry, I drank a lot of cappuccino with ponytailed men who quoted Marshall McLuhan. That was a more interesting time in e-book history. The industry's foremost articulator was Louis Rossetto, co-founder of Wired, who liked to talk about what was wrong with print culture. He thought we could do better than Gutenberg. Print culture had replaced the hand-copied manuscript with a bloodless mass-produced object, the book. Books taught us to stay in line. Online media, on the other hand, would be at once liberating and orderly, like an acid trip with a great index.

I loved this kind of talk, but its moment was long over by the fall of 1998, when I joined 400 e-book manufacturers, software designers, venture capitalists, and publishers at the first Electronic Book Conference, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. People mentioned Rossetto, who had left Wired to become a consultant, with a shake of the head. "Information may want to be free," said Dick Brass, a vice president of technology development at Microsoft who was the conference's keynote speaker, "but authors happen to want to be paid."

Brass is an affable, deep-voiced, middle-aged man who was a New York Daily News features editor and TV restaurant critic until he quit to develop the first dictionary-based electronic spell checker, which came out in 1981. He is also an old friend of Bill Gates, who persuaded him to come out of early retirement to direct Microsoft's e-book efforts. He opened the 1998 conference by recounting the failed history of the electronic book, dating back to a primitive ancestor called a "memex" that was conceived at MIT shortly after World War II, though never constructed. His point was that the technology kept improving, but the business environment hadn't. Hardware makers, publishers, and software makers viewed one another as competitors. This time around, Microsoft would not try to create the content. Publishers in turn should not try to manufacture the product, as they had in the mid '90s with CD-ROMs. Gates e-mailed me a similar message. "We're working with a whole group of companies," he wrote, listing several publishers, e-book makers, and online booksellers. "To make e-books a reality, the industry needs to avoid the kind of VHS versus Betamax war that took place in the VCR market," he added. Otherwise, "people will just keep reading paper books."

The same players returned to Gaithersburg a year later for a second conference. This time there was a lot less win-win talk. The publishers had spent the year cooperating more in appearance than in reality, thinking they could slip one by the geeks. They had licensed everything but their very top sellers -- their Danielle Steeles and Tom Clancys. Who could blame them? They had a lot to think about. They didn't know if they should stick with what they knew -- printed books -- or become electronic publishers themselves and leave paper and print behind. They worried if by doing business with electronic-book manufacturers they were selling their executioner the rope. They did not want to make a costly mistake.

At E-Books II, Brass gave them something new to think about. Along with a Power Point slide presentation that forecast the end of books, he introduced a piece of software called the Microsoft Reader (now available from the company's Web site) that works on personal computers and makes whatever is displayed look like a printed page. There are already millions of computers that run Windows, and could soon be running Microsoft Reader. There are also a lot of scanners out there. To connect the dots, all Brass had to do was say "MP3." MP3 is software that allows you to download music quickly from the Web. Between E-Books I and II, millions of fans downloaded rock songs and paid nothing. That was the point of Brass' presentation, too. You could scan a book in and read it on Microsoft Reader whether the publisher helped or not. "We need to foster habits of honest purchase," he said, "before the pirates move in."

There are other snares for publishers. Some fear they could be cut out altogether by leaner businesses that, for a small fee, will secure electronic rights and convert text to electronic code. This is possible because most publishing contracts, especially those written before the mid '90s, do not explicitly grant electronic rights. "Who has the electronic rights to As I Lay Dying? Nobody knows," says Susan Ralston, a Knopf executive who is the division's liaison with electronic publishers. Who winds up with the electronic rights to books like William Faulkner's 1930 novel and perhaps a million other older works will depend on who has the most energy, wields the most legal clout, and moves the fastest. As one observer put it, we can expect "a near future of warfare between publishers and authors over the control of rights."

Except for genre writers like Stephen King, authors have been slow to see the importance of what is happening. One of the first titles available on the Rocket eBook was Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. He said he wasn't sure how his novel had been chosen. His agent referred me to Knopf, where Ralston said that Rocket had drawn up a wish list of Knopf titles, ranging from the novels of Toni Morrison to Red Blood and Black Ink, a history of journalism in the Old West. ("I think they thought it was a Burt Lancaster movie," Ralston says.) Golden happened to be one of the few on the list for whom the rights situation appeared clear, and his agent was willing to give it a try.

On a train trip from Washington back to New York, I finally got my chance to try a couple of e-books. The Glassbook turned out to be just a rumor, and would ultimately reach the market as reading software. The Everybook existed only as a cardboard mock-up, but I had a Rocket eBook and a SoftBook in my bag. (Since then, the companies that developed these products have both been bought by Gemstar-TV Guide, and the names SoftBook and Rocket were dropped. What Gemstar now calls "eBook technology" has been licensed to RCA and reborn as the Reb 1100 and the Reb 1200. It's more proof of what I quickly learned when I tested their predecessors. The e-book remains a work in progress.)

The first thing I realized was that my luggage was incredibly light. The second was that the future is now. Everyone on the Friday-afternoon Metroliner was hunting and pecking and being beeped at and staring at green screens. Why should I, just because I wanted to read, be exempt from this unhappiness? I pulled my eBook, the size of a thick trade paperback, from its Euro-styled leatherette holder and pressed the "on" button. By touching a picture of a row of little books, I was able to call up Memoirs of a Geisha. Several things impressed me. The backlighting was warm and soft. I could read with one hand, leaving the other free. (I thought of the old saw that pornography is the engine of technology.) Using the page-turning button, I clicked nicely through the story. But it wasn't capturing my attention. It may have been the writing, but maybe my brain's receptors were failing to find whatever part of books makes them books. I think it was all that glass. Reading the story was like watching a fish in an aquarium tank. I wanted to swim with it.

So I switched to Michael Wolff's Burn Rate, an account of venture capitalists' eagerness to finance anything with cyber in it. Burn Rate was lighter going, closer to a magazine article in tone. Whatever inside me had resisted Memoirs of a Geisha gave in. The eBook came with a plastic stylus to make notes on screen, but when it dropped under my seat I didn't pick it up.

As the train reached Philadelphia, I put down the eBook -- it saved my place automatically -- and pulled out the now defunct SoftBook. If the eBook was low tech, the SoftBook was no tech. I opened the leather cover and the screen turned on. My copy came preloaded with "content." (The SoftBook was designed to be an electronic "briefing" tool -- to handle documents, corporate information, and other business essentials, as well as books. This, along with electronic textbooks, is where many analysts think the most money is to be made.) I began reading a Times profile of Joseph Jacobson, the MIT professor who had patented one of the technologies for electronic ink, the infinitely rewritable medium of Citizen X's e-book. Jacobson told the Times of his ambition: to create "the last book." It would hold everything in the Library of Congress and be more compact than Joy of Cooking. We were to expect it soon.

Back home, I wanted new books to read. Even if John Grisham wasn't yet on e-books, a lot was. The eBook and SoftBook each had more than a thousand copyrighted titles. To download a SoftBook title, you didn't need a computer. You plugged a telephone line into your device and dialed directly into the SoftBook Bookstore, then clicked on the books you want to download. Somewhere a little elf charged your credit card. When I tried it, the system failed. The eBook, at least in this early form, connected to the Internet through your computer. I clicked on a special section of the Barnes and Noble Web site set aside for eBook customers. It didn't quite work either.

Then my Rocket eBook froze. A Rocket employee (the elf herself?) took a cab up from Chelsea and lent me hers, an experience the average consumer is not likely to have. The eBook was still "unable to install title." Memoirs of a Geisha and Burn Rate, which came preloaded, were mysteriously deleted in the process. None of this bothered me, really; these were prototypes. Technology will not be the problem.

What I liked less was the registration process. My electronic book had a number. My name was attached to it, and so was a password. I asked both SoftBook and Rocket eBook executives if there was a way to shop without registering. They did not understand the question. When you buy software, after all, you register. This is important for an industry in which so much software is bootlegged. Printed books have been immune to this problem. Who wants to stand in front of a photocopy machine for several hours to save $25? But digital text can be pirated in seconds. The Microsoft Reader system now features a three-level security system to counter this threat. Any text protected by the highest level can only be read on certain specified computers or e-book reading machines. It's like a return to the medieval library, when books were so valuable that they were kept on chains.

Over time the book has given up its anonymity in many small ways, including copyright registration, International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs), bar codes. The act of reading has lost some of its privacy, too. When Kenneth Starr wanted to know what books Monica Lewinsky had given President Clinton, he subpoenaed her account at a Washington bookstore. A federal court rejected the subpoena, pointing out that the confidentiality of the books we buy is protected by a higher standard than that of ordinary purchases. The government must show a "compelling need" to know.

No one knows exactly what books I have in my house -- and no one cares. The risk of buying electronic books is not really censorship. It is the end of informal information dissemination -- pressing a book on a friend, picking up a paperback at a rummage sale, handing a dollar to the guy on the sidewalk who's selling books off a blanket. This is one way ideas move through the culture. There's an accidentalness to reading -- one of its pleasures -- that the computer world doesn't think much about.

Ultimately the goal is, as programmers put it, to "carpet-bomb the world with content." They will put hundreds of thousands of books on every hard drive, along with thousands of songs, movies, and so on. You will pay a toll when you want to use them. This has its appeal -- a library on every computer, just waiting for a reader. It is very Borgesian. But the security systems will also make it possible to charge advertisers for your attention; they'll know where you've been, and for how long. I couldn't get past my uneasiness at the idea of a computer tracking not just what I bought but also what I read. When I expressed my worries to Dick Brass, he scoffed at them -- not because he thought they were unimportant but because they were too late. "You lost your privacy when something called the Web was being put together," he told me.

I thought about that on a visit to the media lab at MIT, where I hoped to meet Jacobson, the co-inventor of electronic ink who had proclaimed the death of the printed book. A publicist gave me a fascinating tour of the lab. I saw computers that were learning to predict what I will want to wear, what newspapers will interest me. (I was pleased to see that the secretaries still relied on IBM Selectrics to type their labels, though.) I even saw a computer that was going to help me write my screenplay, there being only eight plots in Hollywood anyway.

It turned out that Jacobson was tired of spreading the word. He was now concentrating on step two of the Last Book: increasing the storage capacity of disk drives. When I walked into his lab, I found only a graduate student studying a violin wrapped in wires. The place depressed me: I was chasing the anti-Gutenberg through a building whose bookcases held only software, videotapes, and old stacks of Wired. Suddenly I missed Brass, who appreciated that books had lasted for 1,400 years for a reason. On my way out, the publicist asked me to sign an agreement restricting my use of what I had learned. I refused.

When I got home, I went to my brother's house, where my 4-year-old nephew and 6-year-old niece were waiting. Jonah enjoyed opening and closing the SoftBook. I took this as a victory for the McLuhanites. The medium really was the message. Hannah had been learning to read with such ferocity that her parents sometimes have to pry her hands off her books when it is time to go to bed. I remember that moment, that first discovery of the power of the written word. Hannah liked Charlotte's Web on paper because the illustrations were better, but she also liked how fast you could read it on-screen by clicking the button. I asked her which she preferred. "Any book," she answered, surprising me. This, I realized, was important. If it was not the only point about this technology, it was at least a crucial one, and one we would be foolish to ignore. Bits, atoms, paper, plastic are going to change Citizen X's life, but what's going to matter most is what she reads.

D.T. Max contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine. He is writing a book on electronic books, to be published electronically.


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