This was going to be the week when we learned what last week meant, which is turning out to be true in a way we didn’t anticipate barely 72 hours ago. We were going to learn whether last week was the beginning of a crisis that would fatally wound if not kill the Obama presidency or if it was merely the most egregious manifestation of right-wing bad faith. Instead the cataclysmic Oklahoma tornado, along with the gathering politics of the scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service, inevitably engage the American public in a consideration of government itself—what it’s good for and what it isn’t, how it serves us and how it betrays us.
In sheer partisan terms, the IRS matter is a godsend to conservatives for whom Benghazi had become a mantra long on glee but short on comprehension. If the Republicans I know, including my 85-year-old mother, are so obsessed as to nearly mutter Benghazi in their sleep—that very name almost as deliciously ominous in its foreignness as “Barack” and “Obama”—it’s also true that none can explain in any specific way that’s related to what we know rather than what we conjecture exactly what the scandal is anymore or ever was. It now seems clear that the firestorm over the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya last fall, which only two weeks ago was called by at least one congressman a scandal ten times worse than Watergate, will die without the oxygen of new facts. This is because the implicit accusation of Benghazi always has concerned not incompetence as it has to do with embassy security overseas (there were over 50 such attacks and more than a dozen similar deaths during the presidency of George W. Bush) but how the attack was willfully mischaracterized by the White House to further electoral ends, something for which there doesn’t exist a single piece of hard evidence, including last week’s release of many emails exchanged between the CIA and departments of Defense and State.
Barack Obama used to be a writer so presumably he has an appreciation for metaphor. He should comprehend how the IRS business lends itself more vividly, and not without some empirical basis, to the conspiratorial fantasia that so enthralls conservatives hard pressed to otherwise explain how a Kenyan bolshevik has managed to get himself elected twice. To be sure, IRS officials taking the Fifth Amendment during congressional testimony, as happened yesterday, don’t help. Nor does the Obama Administration’s inability to provide a straight answer as to when people in the White House (including the president) knew what—not the only thing to have echoes of Watergate for those of us old enough to remember those original '70s sounds of the state being used to harass political opponents. It’s not out of line to call, as some have, the exclusive targeting of a particular political philosophy by the government Nixonian. Remaining to be seen isn’t just whether this agenda by the IRS was agency-wide rather than confined to a single zealous branch in Ohio but whether there was Nixonian involvement by the designated Nixon in this case: the president. Without a Nixon, things tend to get less Nixonian. When the dust settles, perhaps the right question will be asked, which isn’t why conservative 501(c)4s have had their preposterous tax-exempt status examined but why liberal 501(c)4s aren’t examined as well. After that orgy of common sense, we can move on to churches.
The right’s appreciation for metaphor historically has been less keen than Obama’s, and what happened in Moore, Oklahoma, is too horrific to make a metaphor of it anyway. One doesn’t need to be a poet, however, to have an appreciation of hypocrisy, metaphorical or not, and while conservatives during the Bush presidency displayed a canny sense of optics when it came to stagecraft, they have none for the optics of human behavior. Assuring us that the IRS fiasco is worse than Benghazi—which is to say, what, 15 or 20 times worse than Watergate?—a right wing in the grip of an increasingly frenzied five-year hysteria when it comes to anything Obaman already ran the risk of being tuned out by the public even before it started talking about impeachment. This is a word that somehow went unspoken among Republicans when it became categorically incontestable that the previous president misled the country into a war, probably because these keepers of the Constitution have a special insight into its nuances that’s denied the rest of us, James Madison’s invisible writing burning into being only when subjected to the light of more righteous eyes. Now Republicans’ elation over the Obama troubles is marred by a small public relations disaster of their own as they mull how to explain extending federal help to the ruined citizens of a red state that went three to one last November for Governor Romney and which is represented in the Senate and House by all Republicans who mostly voted against relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. One of the conspicuous exceptions is Tom Cole who supported Sandy relief and is, fortunately for Moore, its congressman.
The two most revered words in the progressive lexicon are the two most distrusted by conservatives, and they are: social contract. This is even more basic than it sounds, since it’s about nothing more or less than what it means to be a country. For most Americans the answer is somewhere between anarchy and collectivism, and this past week both progressives and conservatives found themselves confronted by the limits of their definitions. In the meantime, as this conversation grows to a possible critical mass, subterranean to the issues of Benghazi, the IRS, and disaster aid is potentially the most relevant scandal of all, and that is the extent to which the Justice Department seized Associated Press phone records and cast a criminal cloud over a Fox reporter doing his job. As complicated as the circumstances—which include a national security breach around the thwarting of a bomb plot and the revelation of a spy’s involvement in the process—are the politics, which may be why Washington’s various adherents don’t quite know what to do with the whole affair. But then sometimes the social contract defies the cost-benefit analyses of ideology. Everyone’s interests are at least somewhat at stake in Justice’s AP ransacking and everyone’s fingerprints are on it at least a little, from Republicans who complained incessantly about the administration’s inability to keep secrets to those of us in the media disinclined to examine our responsibilities as they begin and end in relation to the law, to the amok Department of Justice and the favored attorney general who Barack Obama is closer to than anyone else in his cabinet.
At the least the president must seize control of the moment’s metaphors, and if the executive in him is resistant to do it for whatever reason, then maybe the writer should. Letting Eric Holder go would be one kind of metaphor, keeping him another. Every writer learns to kill his darlings and, sooner or later, so do presidents.