Pinocchios for everyone! (Vladimir Menkov/Wikimedia Commons)
I am hereby declaring 99 Pinocchios on Barack Obama, all the people who work for him, everyone in the Republican party, and most everyone in the press who has reported on Benghazi.
This is about what has to be one of the most inane disagreements in the history of American politics, the argument about whether Obama called the Benghazi attack an "act of terror" or a "terrorist attack." Incredibly, people are still bickering over this. The other day Darrell Issa expressed his outrage that Obama had, in his diabolical attempt to cover up the incident, used the phrase "act of terror," which, let's be honest, is almost like saying, "Way to go, al Qaeda!", instead of using the far, far, far more condemnatory phrase "terrorist attack." It's like the difference between saying "steaming pile of bullshit" when you ought to say "steaming bullshit pile"—anyone who can't tell the difference between the two obviously can't be trusted to run the country. Then the ordinarily reasonable Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's fact-checker, sternly judged Obama to be guilty of a Four Pinnochio whopper, because at his last press conference he said, "The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism," when in fact he didn't say "act of terrorism but just "act of terror." Facts? Checked.
But here's what nobody seems to get: Benghazi was not a terrorist act. Or an act of terror. Or an act of terrorism.
Every administration has its scandals, but what's different about what's happening to the Obama administration is the confluence of two separate scandalish stories converging at the same time. Or maybe two and a half; were it not for the timing, the Justice Department's pursuit of the Associated Press over leaks of information related to terrorist activity would never be called a "scandal," and I doubt Republicans would even have bothered getting mad about it (I'll get back to that in a moment). The whole thing is complicated by the fact that Benghazi and the IRS are so different, in ways that complicate the Republicans' task. In their minds, the two stories are part of a seamless web of corruption, two symptoms of the same underlying disease. But that only makes sense if you already believed that Barack Obama was a villain bent on destroying the nation, and most Americans don't.
The trouble for Republicans is that one scandal actually reaches to the top levels of the administration, but it's the one where no actual malfeasance occurred, while the one involving genuinely scandalous behavior doesn't get anywhere near the White House, at least from what we know so far.
In case it slipped your mind during all this talk of scandal and impeachment, official Washington has spent the last couple of years gnashing its teeth about the budget deficit. Even as European austerity policies threw the continent into a period of extended despair, Republicans and their allies in the well-appointed conference rooms of "centrist" think tanks told us sternly that unemployment would have to wait; the most immediate crisis was the deficit.
Richard Nixon and John Ehrlichman (White House photo). These guys knew from cover-ups.
Of all the crazy things people on the right are now saying about Benghazi, I'll admit that the one that most makes me want to scream is that it's "worse than Watergate." I get that much of the time it's just a way of saying "This is a big deal," and maybe there are some of your dumber elected officials (your Goehmerts, your Bachmanns) who actually believe it. But the idea is so plainly absurd that sometimes it feels like they're just trolling, saying it not because any sane person could actually think it's true, but because they just want to drive me nuts.
And as long as they keep saying it, I guess we'll have to keep reminding people with short memories what actual scandals involve. To that end, Jonathan Bernstein has a nice reminder for us about Watergate and what a real cover-up looks like, in the course of which he counters the old "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" aphorism: "I'll stick with what I always say about this: its the crime, not the cover-up, that gets people in trouble. The reason for the Watergate cover-up was that specific crimes had been committed, crimes which could have (had they been confessed to in June 1972) sent much of the senior White House staff, much of the campaign organization, and perhaps the President of the United States straight to prison." I'd add that in the case of Watergate, the cover-up actually consisted of new crimes, added on to the original crimes.
In case you didn't notice, over the last few days we entered a new phase in the Obama presidency: the scandal phase. What happened? It wasn't evidence of a crime being unearthed, or a confession from a conspirator. There was no sudden revelation, no arrests, no cancer on the presidency. Indeed, just a few days ago it looked for all the world like Benghazi would take its place with Solyndra and "Fast and Furious" as one more wished-for scandal that, despite the best efforts of Republicans, failed to take flight. Yet all it took was ABC News getting passed some emails between the CIA, the State Department, and the White House detailing how the administration argued over how exactly to talk about the attack in Benghazi to get things underway, and now we have calls for special committees and ramped-up coverage. There may not be anything particularly shocking in those emails—just the time-honored tradition of people trying to cover their asses—but some internal deliberations being revealed, no matter what they contain, has given the media enough of a prod to start that scandal train moving, and before you know it everyone's going to jump onboard.
So suddenly it looks like this isn't going away, not because there was appalling malfeasance (or any malfeasance at all), but because once the train is moving, it's almost impossible to stop. Put together the right's desperate longing for an Obama scandal—turn on Fox News or listen to conservative radio, and you'll see eyelids fluttering in ecstasy as this story gains momentum—with congressional Republicans' helplessness in the face of pressure from their base, and the media's inability to resist a presidential scandal story, and this whole thing might not end unless and until Barack Obama is impeached.