The Republicans had a powerful weapon against President Clinton. But they couldn’t stop themselves. It wasn’t just wrong; it wasn’t just bad or even egregious judgment. They turned it into an impeachable offense and ended up looking worse than the president. Washington overkill, fueled by the bloodthirsty quest for bodies, ultimately provoked the public’s revulsion at such gamesmanship. The president ended up the victim.
In those terms, Benghazi is deja vu all over again.
No one doubts that something went terribly wrong in Libya. Mistakes were made. Security was, obviously, woefully inadequate. Those issues have been fully investigated — by no less distinguished a team than former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who led an independent review board.
No, the issue in Washington is not what went wrong with Libya. The issue is who tampered with Susan Rice’s talking points before she went on the Sunday talk shows. Who downplayed the “terrorism” part, and did they do so to make the White House look better? Was there politics going on in the editing of the talking points? Do they gamble in Casablanca?
Yes, they do. And according to emails the president says were handed over months ago, emails the Republicans are claiming to be the “smoking gun” that will lead to the president’s impeachment and Hillary Clinton’s downfall, it appears that many hands took the pen to those talking points before Rice went on television.
So, do Republicans really plan to impeach the president and destroy Hillary Clinton over who tampered with the talking points? Apparently, they think they can.
On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) formally asked (demanded) that Pickering and Mullen sit for interviews with investigators from his committee. Pickering responded that he welcomes the opportunity to testify, but pointed out the obvious: He and Mullen had been charged with investigating security and safety at diplomatic posts (real issues), not with looking into who tampered with the talking points. The two matters are “not even connectable, as far as I can see.”
That’s because he can see straight. That’s because he’s not a politician or a talk-show host.
Both Republicans and Democrats urged humanitarian intervention in Libya. When it appeared that humanitarian intervention triggered terrorism against Americans, that policy should have been subject to careful scrutiny. There are, almost certainly, many lessons to be learned. Pickering and Mullen and Hillary Clinton herself have already testified as to these issues. If further investigation of them is warranted, so be it.
But it is an insult to those who died, and to all of those who are dealing with real problems in this country, to turn this into a Monica Lewinsky-like spectacle focused, this time, not on a blue dress but on the use of a figurative red pen. So Rice was put on television to “spin” the news. Isn’t that what everyone does on those shows?
Is Congress really going to spend weeks investigating “spin”?
Maybe I’m angry because I have too many friends struggling through hard times economically, with their health or their kids or their work, too many friends worried about real stuff, hoping there is some way the government can make things better, to have the patience for games I once found amusing to watch. Maybe I’m angry because all that these games accomplish — and the polls bear this out — is dividing us into our usual camps, right down the line, meaning that absolutely nothing gets accomplished, and people hate politics even more than they did before.
But in the end, I’m sure of this much: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are not going to be destroyed by the talking points. As for Republicans who are willing to risk their credibility on blowing up this scandal, that’s another thing. Bill Clinton is a whole lot more popular today than Newt Gingrich. You’d think people would learn. They don’t.
Susan Estrich is a law professor in California.