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Scooter's parable

January 17, 2007

Jury selection began Tuesday in I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury trial in U.S. District Court in Washington. Libby, if found guilty, could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. The following excerpt comes from an essay titled "Scooter and Me," by NICK BROMELL, in the current issue of the American Scholar ( Bromell is an English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He and Libby became friends at prep school in Massachusetts in the early 1960s. They stayed in touch over the years, Bromell writes, even as their political differences "became more obvious and grave."

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 ask.

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?"

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