The line stretched from the doors of UC Berkeley's International House dormitory down into the night along Piedmont Avenue. Hundreds of people waited in the dark near Memorial Stadium, and the line threatened to reach the Hearst Greek Theatre. A man rode by on his bike and asked what the big deal was. "Rolling Stones tickets!" a middle-aged woman shouted. But of course, it wasn't anything of the kind. The line was for former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the man at the center of the Bush administration's greatest scandal. He came to talk about his adventures chasing alleged Iraqi uranium acquisitions in Niger, his public pronouncements questioning the honesty of the war's rationale, and the subsequent release of his wife's identity as a CIA agent.
It was an event tailor-made to bring out Berkeley's worst impulses. Few people anywhere hate George W. Bush like the residents of this town, and its citizens are famously disposed toward hyperbole and conspiracy theories. The Wilson scandal has all the trimmings: a ruinous war, secret White House cabals determined to rat-fuck their critics, and an illegal cover-up. Wilson's appearances could easily have degenerated into another fatuous spectacle of lefties exchanging superficial tropes with one another. But this was Berkeley at its best. Hundreds of polite, educated people stood in line not to yell preconceived opinions at the sky, but to listen and learn. If Berkeley was conceived in the spirit of dispassionate inquiry, it lived up to its promise Wednesday night.
"I'll just try to get a more dynamic perspective, I guess, on the Iraqi war from somebody who knows a little more than I would," Patrick Traughber said of what he hoped to get out of Wilson's talk. Traughber is a quiet freshman from Long Beach with short brown hair and a serious, almost humble demeanor. He's opposed to war on principle, and his father told him stories about his own ambivalence during Vietnam. But he's willing to believe that sometimes war is fought for a compelling reason, and he hoped that by the end of the night, he'd know a little more about the good faith of his president. "Just as a citizen, you don't really know the whole story," he said. "Maybe George Bush believed that there was a reason to go to war, and maybe he didn't. It's kind of why I'm here."
This open-mindedness, leavened with a little mild skepticism, was the theme of the night. Take the supposed martyrdom of Joe Wilson. Some of his own story has a hard time squaring with other evidence, especially his claim that his wife, Valerie Plame, had nothing to do with recommending him for the Niger yellowcake assignment. He comes off as a little too enamored of his own myth and, having appeared with his supposedly covert wife in a spread in Vanity Fair, ickily predisposed to sensationalism.
And then there's his association with the CIA, which hasn't historically found its greatest fans among Berkeley residents. Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, has noted the irony of the "increasing solidarity of the left with the CIA" and claims that leftist opponents of the war have willed themselves to trust the agency "for reasons of opportunism."
But this crowd put the lie to that easy generalization. In fact, a surprising number of people in line were perfectly equipped to see the nuances of this scandal. Teddy John, a graduate student at Cal, waited to hear Wilson because of his unique position during the run-up to the war, not because he regarded Wilson as a hero. "I don't think it's because people are proud of him," he said. "It's just to see how he makes his own arguments, and make my own judgments."
Before the event formally began, Wilson emerged from the front of the room and dove into the audience, pressing the flesh, signing autographs, and slapping backs with a grin. "Maybe he has political aspirations or something," an usher joked, and he wasn't the only one speculating about Wilson's political future that night. But Wilson proved more impressive than the showboater he sometimes looks like on television. Sure, his ego walks into the room fifteen minutes before he does; he spent ten minutes telling a long, boastful story about how critical he was to ending Niger's pattern of coups d'état. "You can imagine what sort of credibility that gave me with the civilian authorities, with whom I'd been working for the better part of the 1990s," he said. But his was the ego of a man who'd walked the halls of Washington convinced of his own resourcefulness, at ease with power, and unafraid to confront those who have more of it than he does.
In fact, it was this sense of proximity to power that may have contributed to the crowd's polite, muted response. Wilson was perfectly frank in his criticism of the Bush administration -- near the end of his talk, he declared, "I think that when the history of this time is written, Mr. Cheney will not come out of it looking very good." But he was hardly a dissenter in Berkeley's tradition. "In 2002, I was mostly known as having been a hawk in the first Bush administration," he said, "and as President Bush's charge in Baghdad during the first Gulf War, and as having been lauded by the first President Bush as a true American hero."
In fact, Wilson's first article on the subject of George W. Bush's impending war, which appeared in the San Jose Mercury News in 2002, is replete with the values of power politics and the Henry Kissinger school of foreign policy. "Can we disarm Saddam this time," Wilson asked, "without risking a chemical attack or a broader regional war that threatens our allies?" Those allies include the despotic Mubarak regime in Egypt and the corpulent plutocracy of Saudi Arabia, whose continuing oppression of basic human aspiration is apparently not much of a cause for concern.
"After my first article appeared, I sent copies of it to the first President Bush, to [former Secretary of State] Jim Baker, and to [former National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft," Wilson told the crowd. "The day my article arrived on Brent's desk, he called me up and said, 'Can I take this over to the White House? They should read this. They should read this. They could benefit from the experience that you bring to the table.' Two or three days later, I got a letter from the first President Bush, in which he said. 'I agree with virtually everything in your article.' And a couple days after that, I got a letter from Jim Baker saying virtually the same thing."
Wilson's stories of diplomacy and Beltway bloodsport were lurid and fascinating, but his vision of Middle East affairs isn't much more comforting than that of the current occupant of the White House. The second George Bush has provoked a vicious, destabilizing insurgency that spills blood every day, but the first George Bush presided over a status quo of ruthless, corrupt client states. It's a balance of power Wilson looks on with some nostalgia, but it doesn't exactly appeal to those who think freedom and prosperity are the birthright of every human being, even Arab ones. Hundreds of people came to hear not a man who shares their sense of decency, but who knows power and politics. And that's exactly what they got. No wonder they sat on their hands most of the night.
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