Karl Rove as Jean Valjean: An Upside-Down Look at the Plame Affair

In his fat and highly skewed new memoir out today, Karl Rove portrays himself as an improbable Jean Valjean—an innocent man who, like the persecuted hero of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, is relentlessly hounded by an obsessed lawman determined to put him behind bars.

As the former White House senior adviser tells it in Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, he was forced to drain his personal savings and watch his family subjected to "countless hours of abuse and fear"—all because special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was supposedly seeking any way possible to indict him for lying about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Rove maintained a brave public face throughout. But behind the scenes, "the whole thing was scaring the hell out of me," he writes. And it turns out that he was far closer to getting indicted than most people knew.

After Rove's fourth grand-jury appearance in October 2005, Fitzgerald phoned Rove's lawyer, Bob Luskin, and told him: "All things being equal, we are inclined to indict your client." Luskin ultimately talked Fitzgerald out of it during a marathon session at the special counsel's Chicago office on Oct. 20. Back in Washington, Rove waited with trepidation. When Luskin finally called him at the White House, he shut the door. "My legs were unable to hold me up." Upon learning that he would be spared, Rove immediately called his wife, Darby. Then "I placed the receiver in its cradle and wept."

Rove offers this arresting recount of him weeping in the White House to show the personal toll that special-prosecutor investigations can take on public officials. But its credibility ultimately rests on readers' willingness to accept Rove's highly selective (and at times blatantly distorted) version of the events that got him into trouble in the first place.

When the news first broke that the Justice Department had launched a criminal investigation into the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity, the White House moved aggressively to tamp down any suspicions that Rove might have been involved in any way. "Totally ridiculous," Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Sept. 29, 2003, when asked whether Rove had played any role in leaking the news that Plame (the wife of Iraq War critic and former ambassador Joe Wilson) had worked at the CIA. "I have spoken with Karl about this matter . . . I've made it very clear that he was not involved, that there's no truth to the suggestion that he was."

Rove somehow never quotes these very public words, issued from the White House press room, in his own dissection of the Plame affair. Yet he acknowledges that less than three months earlier, when Robert Novak was working on his initial column outing Plame, the columnist called him up (the two men were old friends) and said he had been informed that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. "I heard that, too," Rove concedes he told Novak. (Rove insists he can't quite remember where he "heard" this: it might have been Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, deputy national security-adviser Steve Hadley, or possibly some "unfamiliar reporter" who "accosted" him at a social event.) Novak then sourced his initial column to "two senior administration officials." Rove's explanation: he never imagined that Novak would take his offhand remarks as confirmation for his column.

Rove reveals that when the FBI launched its criminal probe into the sourcing of Novak's column that fall, he went to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, chief of staff Andy Card, and President Bush himself and told them all about his conversation with Novak. But somehow no one thought to correct or modify McLellan's public denial—even when on Oct. 1, 2003, Novak himself removed virtually any doubt. On that day, Novak wrote another column describing the sourcing of his original account. His initial source about Wilson's wife, he wrote, was "no partisan gunslinger" (that turned out to be Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage). His second source? Another senior official who, when questioned about Wilson's wife's employment, told him: "Oh, you know about it." While not exactly "I heard that, too," it was close enough. Rove knew for sure that Novak was talking about him. "I was sick to my stomach," he writes. Yet neither he nor anybody else at the White House thought to fess up.

The remark to Novak was not actually what put Rove in Fitzgerald's crosshairs. That was another conversation Rove had with Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper during the critical week before Valerie Plame's identity was revealed. As NEWSWEEK first revealed, when Cooper called him up and asked about Wilson, Rove told the reporter there was "embarrassing" information about the former diplomat: his wife worked on WMD issues at the CIA, and she was the official responsible for dispatching him on a trip to Africa to look into accounts that Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy yellowcake uranium. Cooper immediately memorialized his conversation with Rove in an e-mail to his editors, saying the information from Rove had been passed along on "double super secret background." But when Rove was first questioned by a federal grand jury in February 2004, he said he didn't remember having any conversation with Cooper at all. In his book, he says nothing about what he actually told Cooper.

Things only got messier for Rove after that. In April of that year, his home computers were subpoenaed. In July, Fitzgerald subpoenaed Cooper. In October, smack in the middle of the 2004 campaign, Rove was summoned back to the grand jury. This time, Luskin found an e-mail Rove wrote (to Hadley) showing he had in fact talked to Cooper about the Wilson affair. Rove insists he still couldn't remember the conversation—he got lots of phone calls. Fitzgerald was skeptical, to say the least, and continued his investigation, determined to get Cooper's account of what Rove had told him.

In the course of all this, Rove takes swipes at everyone he blames for his misfortune. Fitzgerald is portrayed as an "obsessive" and out-of-control prosecutor. ("Anything for a Scalp," is the title of one of two chapters on the prosecutor.) MSNBC host Chris Matthews was an "agent provocateur" who misquoted him by claiming that Rove had described Plame as "fair game." Rove even rips into Cooper, who was on the verge of going to jail for protecting Rove's identity. In Rove's telling, the genial reporter was only trying "to milk the drama" so he could become "a journalistic martyr."

In the vast scheme of things, Rove's distortions of the Plame episode are not likely to be remembered as his most grievous sins at the White House—or the biggest whoppers in his book. The whole Plame affair came about because White House aides such as he and Libby (who was indicted and convicted by Fitzgerald) were determined to discredit Wilson for alleging that the administration had misstated the evidence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Rove says this is a false charge—and insists that the White House had ample reason to support President Bush's original claim in his State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa. (This despite the fact that CIA Director George Tenet had explicitly warned the White House two months before the speech that evidence for the claim was "weak" and "overblown.") Rove valiantly defends virtually everything the White House said about Iraqi WMD—almost all of which turned out to be false. Amazingly, he writes on page 340, during the run-up to the Iraq war, "I could see the care everyone was taking not to overstate the case or exaggerate the danger" from Iraq.

At least Jean Valjean never denied stealing that loaf of bread.