In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what.
But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl's source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS's Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).
Let me just explain quickly in case you haven't been following this, and then we'll discuss what it means.
As any parent knows, small children often believe that when you've been denied something you want, repeating your request over and over will eventually produce the result you're after. It works on occasion, if the stakes are low enough, the parents are weak of will, and the child is particularly exasperating. Fortunately, this behavior usually disappears around age eight or nine.
Being president is hard, and often downright unpleasant, particularly when there are scandals, legitimate or otherwise, swirling about and distracting your attention from what you'd like to be accomplishing. I'm sure it's particularly frustrating when the opposition party is so intransigent that negotiating with them is pointless. Right now Barack Obama's presidency is at something of a low point, but nevertheless, it was a bit surprising to see this, from a New York Timesstory this morning: "Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him."
This is not, it should be noted, a belief on the president's part that if he just gave it to 'em straight, he could transform American politics with the power of honest words. That view is alarmingly persistent among certain members of the punditry, and Obama is plainly contemptuous of it. He understand the constraints he's under, how the institutions of Washington conspire to make change difficult, and where the limits on presidential power lie. But if he really wanted to "go Bulworth," there isn't anything stopping him. What does he have to lose?
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.