If Republicans in Congress really want to get Americans to pay attention to the Benghazi scandalette, they're going to have to do some creative thinking. Since hearings and periodic expressions of outrage haven't worked so far, maybe a musical would do the trick. A soaring ballad or two, some hopping dance numbers, maybe a pair of star-crossed lovers. Naturally, it would be called Benghazi!, kind of like Oklahoma!, only rather more grim.
But in the meantime, they're going to go with a select committee to investigate the matter, as House Speaker John Boehner announced on Friday. One does wonder whether they think that if they just do some more investigating, they'll uncover the real crime. No one knows what it is yet, but just you wait.
Or, as is far more likely, they're just hoping to create a lot of bad news days for the administration, where the whiff of "scandal" surrounds the White House regardless of whether any malfeasance is actually uncovered. And could the fact that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State at the time, the same Hillary Clinton who will probably be running for president starting very soon, have anything to do with it? Perish the thought.
You have to give Republicans this: for all the buffoonery of House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA), they've actually been somewhat restrained in their use of hearings to investigate the Obama administration, particularly compared to what they did to the last Democratic president. In the 1990s, Republicans in Congress held hearings to investigate everything short of whether Bill Clinton was flossing before bedtime. To take just one example, they heard 140 hours of sworn testimony on whether Clinton had abused the White House Christmas card list. If you're too young to remember, that sounds like a joke. And it was a joke, but it also actually happened.
Given that Republicans despise Barack Obama at least as much as they did Bill Clinton, their more limited use of congressional investigations is rather puzzling. So maybe Boehner's select committee is an attempt to make up for lost time. But there is little doubt that many Republicans sincerely believe that once the American people get a good look at how corrupt this administration is, they'll be shocked and appalled. These are the same Republicans who believed that once Americans heard about Rev. Jeremiah Wright they'd never vote for Obama, and that once Americans heard about that "you didn't build that" comment, they'd turn to Mitt Romney in droves.
You'll be hearing the term "cover-up" a lot as they talk about Benghazi, but when you ask Republicans what exactly was being covered up, you'll find that the suspected crimes have been downgraded significantly over time. They used to believe that someone high up in the administration—Clinton? Obama himself?—gave a "stand down" order to military units who could have gone into Benghazi and saved Ambassador Chris Stevens and the others at the consulate there, knowingly allowing Americans to die because…well, because something or other, they were never really sure. Now that we know that never happened, they'll tell you that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the administration was more concerned with putting a positive spin on the events than in getting to the bottom of it.
Which, depending on exactly whom you're talking about, is true. Ben Rhodes, for instance, the author of the e-mailed memo released last week about which Republicans have gotten so excited, wanted his colleagues "[t]o underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy." (You'll note that he refers to "protests" in the plural, meaning not just what happened in Libya but also what occurred in Cairo and elsewhere.) So there you have it: an Obama administration official who is trying to make sure no one thinks there was a failure of policy!
That's what we call "spin," and whatever you think of it, it isn't a crime (and it happens to be Ben Rhodes's job; his title is "deputy national security adviser for strategic communications," which is what you call someone when "director of foreign policy spin" sounds too crass). Nevertheless, they seem to believe that this new e-mail Changes Everything.
"We now have the smoking gun," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Charles Krauthammer pronounced the e-mail to be the equivalent of the discovery of the Nixon tapes, because it raises the vital question, "is there any involvement here of the White House which makes it obviously a political issue, the reelection of the president overriding the truth?" A White House, acting politically and concerned about the president's reelection? Truly shocking. Someone must get to the bottom of this.
Keep this in mind as you watch Republicans get worked up into a froth over Benghazi in days to come: the terrible crime they think they've uncovered is that in those first few days, when it was unclear exactly what had happened there, the White House sought to portray the events in a way they thought would minimize political damage. That's it. That's the thing that was supposedly being covered up.
When you and I think of scandal and cover-up, we think of things like selling arms to terrorists, then diverting the revenues to fund a proxy war in direct violation of the law. Now that's something you need to cover up! Or perhaps ordering break-ins, paying hush money, using the CIA to obstruct an FBI investigation, and committing so many crimes that dozens of officials, including the attorney general and the White House chief of staff, end up going to prison. That's prime cover-up material. Or even the president having an affair with an intern half his age, which is something you'd probably want to cover up if you did it.
Watergate gave us the expression, "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up," but it's really both. Only when it comes to Benghazi, we have neither. There was a bureaucracy that may not have done enough to secure our missions overseas, a consulate that wasn't prepared for violence that might have been foreseen, and a military without the ability to respond quickly enough when it happened. You can call it an unavoidable tragedy or a monumental screw-up. But if you're looking for crimes committed at the highest levels of the administration, you're going to be looking for a long time.
But as far as Republicans are concerned, you don't need actual malfeasance, or evidence of an actual cover-up. As long as you have lots of subpoenas, and cameras to catch all the pounding of tables and expressions of outrage, you have all you need to put on a show.