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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
Washington diary: Paris v Scooter
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Scooter Libby and Paris Hilton
Scooter Libby and Paris Hilton face jail the same week

Who would have thought that two stars with silly names would both head to jail in the same week? Scooter in the East. Paris in the West.

The official Democratic Party website took it upon itself to hammer home the similarities: after sentencing, Paris sobbed; after his closing remarks in March, when he was found guilty, Scooter broke down in tears.

Paris wrote a raunchy biography, Confessions of an Heiress, which is laced with intimate details of past scandals. Scooter wrote The Apprentice, a steamy novel which he hopes will one day be turned into a film.

Paris said she did not know that she had been banned from driving. Scooter claimed he did not know Valerie Plame's real identity.

Both said they would use jail time to think hard and reflect deep. Paris also added that she was working out ways to change the world, which may be a trifle ambitious.

Both claim that they have become scapegoats for the ills of others: the excesses of celebrity vying with the excesses of an administration bent on going to war in another country.

Redemption rite

In Los Angeles, a mug shot and a short stint behind bars appears to be almost a rite of passage for a celebrity.

It allows those who have everything to empathise in public with those who have nothing.

It is the preparation of a new role and the script is predictable: the contrition, the return journey to honesty, the charity work, the book deal, the vegetarian recipes, the jailhouse fashion line, the cult of self-improvement lapped up by the attendant media, a stint squirming on Oprah's couch.

Martha Stewart standing in a kitchen
Martha Stewart seems to have recovered well from her stint in jail
America loves tales of celebrity redemption. After star homemaker Martha Stewart's stint behind bars and the requisite genuflection at the altar of humility, her cookies became more popular than ever and the share price of her company went through the ceiling.

Martha, the domestic "uber-deity", became a Mensch and America loved her for it.

As she spends the first of 23 long days in the 8ft-by-12ft (2.5m-by-3.6m) cell of an LA county jail, Paris too will no doubt ponder her post-incarceration career: a sequel to The Simple Life perhaps, or a new line in swimwear featuring sullen earth tones.

I don't know who does Paris's PR, but so far it has been a stroke of genius.

She generously declined to go to a so-called "pay jail", the incarceration equivalent of the Ritz Carlton.

Then they almost managed to portray a spoilt brat as a victim of the celebrity she has always craved.

Paris even created her own website enlisting the help of thousands of sympathisers from cyberspace.

Reversal of fortune

But guess who wrote Scooter Libby's letters of recommendation, read out in court to sway the notoriously no-nonsense judge Reggie Walton to pass a more lenient sentence? Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger.

If Paris can hope for absolution through a new movie, a confessional book or missionary work in Africa, then Scooter's best chance lies, for now, in a presidential pardon

Scooter might as well have asked for plaudits from Niccolo Machiavelli and Cruella de Vil.

The judge handed down almost everything the prosecutor had asked for: 30 months in jail and $250,000 (125,000) in fines.

When Scooter entered the courthouse in the shadow of Capitol Hill, he looked cheerful and was even gracious enough to open the door for his entourage of lawyers.

When he left a few hours later, he looked ashen-faced, red-eyed and apparently perplexed by the reversal of fortune.

His lone sedan car bled into the lunchtime traffic, with the clock ticking on the 45 days before Scooter has to surrender himself to federal hospitality.

In a cruel twist that can only be described as vintage Washington, the same road was cleared only a few minutes later by a phalanx of officious cops for one of those Beltway motorcades that always remind me of a first-class, Third-World dictator.

We all had to stand well back for the armoured stretch limo that Scooter once called home.

His former boss, Vice-President Dick Cheney - as well as 10 outriders, five cop cars, three swat cars, the de rigueur ambulance, the stretch limo and its identical decoy - were all hurtling towards a working lunch on Capitol Hill.

The man of power was now powerless to defend his friend and later issued a statement calling his former chief of staff "a fine man with great judgement and intellect".

The Cheneys declared that they were saddened by the outcome and hoped that justice would still be served.

Iraq poster child

If Paris can hope for absolution through a new movie, a confessional book or missionary work in Africa, then Scooter's best chance lies, for now, in a presidential pardon.

Apparently a group of prominent conservatives are already putting pressure on George W Bush to pardon the man who was once at the very heart of the war cabinet.

But the commander-in-chief may only have 45 days to make up his mind, since it is much harder to issue a pardon when the beneficiary of presidential leniency is already serving time.

At first, I thought that the president would be unlikely to go down this road at a time when his opinion poll ratings continue to sink like a stone and the Iraq war stubbornly bleeds his administration.

On the other hand, the only support Bush has left is with his hardcore base. A pardon is something they might appreciate.

Even Libby's lawyer said in court what no-one in the White House dares to utter out loud. He said his client had "become the poster child for a terrible war."

Like a tongue returning to an infected tooth, this is what it keeps coming back to: the war in Iraq and the reasons for it.

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