After dire reports in the media predicted a web of White House wrongdoers in the CIA leak case, the country learned Friday that only one staff member has been indicted. A grand jury probe didn't uncover a blockbuster scandal, and for a nation whose terrorist enemies are looking for further American weakness, that's something to be grateful for.
The five counts against the Vice President's former Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby don't amount to a far-reaching Iran-contra or Watergate or an impeachment like "Monicagate." They don't involve the president, or relate to the investigation's original mission, which was to see whether an official had knowingly - and thus illegally - outed a US intelligence officer.
But while these conclusions should tamp down the glee some Democrats might feel about a White House under siege, the indictment must be taken seriously by President Bush, whose administration has been battered by Iraq's continuing violence, hurricane Katrina, and a botched Supreme Court nomination. Yet the solution can't be a matter of a beleaguered Bush focusing more intently on pushing his agenda, as if all he has to do is pump more policy iron.
Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, whose investigation seemed measured and reasoned, was correct in his assessment of the charges against Mr. Libby as serious. Perjury, obstruction of justice, and false statements, as alleged, are not to be brushed aside as somehow second-rate crimes. It's not possible to preserve a democracy built on rule of law if truthtelling before a jury or judge is reduced to a personal choice.
Mr. Fitzgerald, who says his investigation is "not quite done," also correctly stated that this case is not about supporting or opposing the Iraq war, although it had its genesis in a White House publicly battling a CIA-picked war critic.
Technically, Fitzgerald is right. His job was not to look into the war's whys and wherefores. But in the minds of many critics of the war, this legal case was seen as being about finding a smoking gun for presumed lying by the Bush administration about Iraq's presumed weapons of mass destruction.
As public support for the war continues to dip, the Libby indictment only adds to doubts about the war's origins, correct or not.
The president must now figure out how to stop that loss of support, both for the war and for his leadership in general. It will be very difficult for Bush to move forward in his remaining 39 months in office without restoring public trust.
Indeed, trust in the president has eroded in the past year on domestic and foreign fronts, according to some polls. A Washington Post-ABC News poll Sunday showed that a majority of Americans believes the Libby indictment indicates "broader" ethical problems in the administration, while 64 percent rate the president's handling of ethics in government as fair or poor.
Other presidents have reemerged from second-term setbacks, and Bush has time to do so. But he'll have to start with rebuilding trust, for that underlies everything else.