Benghazi: The zombie scandal

By Suzanne Garment
May 9, 2014

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks to members of the World Affairs Council in Portland, Oregon

We’re not making scandals the way we used to.

The House of Representatives has now voted, virtually along party lines, to create the Benghazi Select Committee that conservatives have long called for. The atmosphere of scandal that has surrounded Bill and Hillary Clinton for decades has gotten, at least temporarily, a renewed lease on life.

Will the committee produce enough news to revive the idea of the Clintons’ dubious past and inject the poison of illegitimacy into Hillary Clinton’s much-speculated 2016 presidential campaign?

Not likely. Today’s political scandals seem unable to develop the momentum needed to exert real political influence. There’s sound and fury — adding up to an electoral and prosecutorial nothing.

But does this mean the newest Benghazi investigation will end the scandal, one way or another? That’s even less probable. It’s more likely that Benghazi will join the parade of zombie scandals that hover between life and death for what seems an eternity.

boehnerFor months House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) resisted conservative calls to appoint a select committee. Then the conservative monitoring group Judicial Watch got hold of an email showing that a White House official had told then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, before she appeared on the Sunday talk shows to discuss the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, to portray it as “rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

Boehner, calling this new evidence of a White House-orchestrated cover-up the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” announced the creation of the committee and named Representative Harold Watson “Trey” Gowdy III (R-S.C.) to head it. Gowdy is a former federal prosecutor. At committee hearings, he interrogates witnesses in an updated version of the honeyed Carolina drawl that Senator Sam Ervin (R-N.C.) made famous during Watergate. Gowdy, both Republicans and Democrats allow, is very good at this. For some people it’s going to be an uncomfortable ride.

garment -- ervinIt may be a ride to nowhere, however, for reasons unrelated to Benghazi’s particular facts. To understand why, let’s go back to basics. A political scandal is less about what a politician does than what happens when people learn about it and judge it against their shared values.

That’s why a corrupt political system doesn’t necessarily produce big scandals — because the corruption is built in. Or the public that hears about the scandal is too cynical or resigned to care. To produce a scandal of consequence, you need a public with shared values and a capacity for outrage at the idea that these values have been violated.

Forty — it seems like a million — years ago, Watergate reflected this kind of outrage. The outcome of the scandal was determined in October 1973, almost a year before President Richard M. Nixon finally resigned. Archibald Cox, who had been appointed to investigate the break-in at the Watergate office complex on the understanding that he could be dismissed only for cause, had subpoenaed a set of Oval Office tapes. In response, Nixon ordered him fired.

More than 50,000 Americans sent telegrams — remember telegrams? — to Washington protesting what they viewed as the president’s violation of the rule of law. Twenty-one members of Congress introduced resolutions calling for Nixon’s impeachment.

nixon-pressNow that was a demonstration of consensual outrage. But this doesn’t much happen anymore. And not because today’s political offenses are necessarily less heinous than those of Watergate.

There are two main reasons for the diminished consequence of political scandals.  One is their proliferation. After Watergate, public opinion became less tolerant of political and sexual misconduct. New institutions — special prosecutors, federal agencies, investigative journalism — arose to enforce increasingly stringent codes of ethics. We saw scandals over the commingling of public and private funds (Dan Rostenkowski), scandals about mistresses (Wayne Hays and Elizabeth Ray), scandals involving gay prostitution (Barney Frank), scandals featuring drugs (Marion Barry) and scandals triggered by the hiring of undocumented immigrants (Zoe Baird).

Not one citizen in a thousand can tell you the differences among Abscam, Koreagate and Wedtech. Or remember what it was that led to former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan’s once-famous comment, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

nixonThe other reason for the declining power of political scandals is that today’s political players, with their assiduous energy and limited repertoire, have made the exploitation of the other guys’ scandals into their default tactic. You can only do this so many times before the public grows more suspicious of your motives and begins to apply a deeper discount rate to your accusations.

Maybe the dynamic shifted when President Bill Clinton got into trouble over Monica Lewinsky in 1998. Republicans had him dead to rights on his fooling around and prevarication. They even managed to impeach him. But they were met with the equivalent of a yawn from the general public.

Lewinsky has just re-surfaced in Vanity Fair, announcing that it is time to “burn the beret, bury the blue dress, and move on.” To which Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, answered, “And America says, ‘Yes, we did that 15 years ago.’”

Still, the proliferation that has diminished the consequence of political scandals has not made the scandals go away. For this, also, there are two reasons. First, the institutions established to root out malfeasance — the laws, the inspectors general, the multiplication of congressional committee staffs — are not features you can reverse with a wave of the hand. For the foreseeable future, we will have to live with them and the scandals they broadcast.

jfk-pointingSecond, just as you need shared values to produce the kind of outrage that gives a scandal power, you need shared values to build the widespread conclusion that a scandal has run its course. We no longer have anything like this.

Maybe we haven’t had it since a sizable segment of the population decided it did not believe the Warren Commission’s verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy. The theory of the gunman on the grassy knoll in Dallas continues to haunt many Americans.

So, we come to Benghazi. We have, as Secretary of State Clinton put it, four dead Americans. This is serious business. As they say, nobody died at the Watergate. After all the investigations and testimony about Benghazi, however, many people still have a deep sense that the narrative of the tragedy is not clear — that our sense of the reasons for the security failures remains diffuse. That we still don’t know “what did the president know and when he did he know it.”

But this is nothing like consensual outrage. For every citizen angry at what he sees as a politically motivated attempt to obscure U.S. weakness in the world, someone else is convinced that the whole business is just an excrescence of rabid partisanship.

So even Benghazi, with its four dead Americans, repeated inquiries and remaining questions, is not likely to reach a political crescendo. And not likely to die.  Instead, it will probably dribble off into inconclusiveness and join its fellows in the land of the political undead.

We get the scandals that we deserve.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to members of the World Affairs Council in Portland, Oregon, April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Steve Dipaola

PHOTO (Insert 1): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Senators Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) during the Watergate hearings. REUTERS/U.S. Senate

PHOTO (Insert 3): President Nixon during a press conference on Watergate.  REUTERS/Nixon Library

PHOTO (Insert 4): President Richard M. Nixon gives his farewell speech to his Cabinet and staff in the East Room of the White House, following his resignation, Aug. 9, 1974. REUTERS/File 

PHOTO (INSERT 5): President John F. Kennedy points to a reporter at a news conference, November 20, 1962. REUTERS/Abbie Rowe/National Park Service/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

16 comments

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Media, let’s try to keep this fair & balanced. Until the final outcome is determined with all of the fact’s that have not been disclosed previously that are now being revealed for the first time.

Posted by krawlnyj | Report as abusive

What was Senator Schumer doing at the white house from 5Pm to 11:59 pm, the night that Benghazi was attacked?
Why did Rep. Cummings office send e-mails directly to Lois Lerner, when she was working at the IRS?
Why did we have private security at the Benghazi building, instead of US Marines?
Why has Obama lied about obamacare?
Why did H. Clinton refused to place Boko Harem on the terrorists list?
What ever happened to the $500 million dollars that Energy gave Solyndra?
Why did Obama, use executive privilege for Holder on the fast and furious investigation?
WHY did this administration push the story about Benghazi as a video?
WHY did the Feds, investigate the AP and Fox news?

Posted by Gendarme | Report as abusive

The State Department in recent decades have been consistent. The armed guards did not shoot when attacked by mobs. Which encourages all manner violence for political profit against the US. Her not having the marines kill was consistent with what happened under Reagan when the Iranian mob attacked the US Embassy.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

SamuelReich, it was Carter who was president during the Iranian revolution, not Reagan, but good try.

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

The attack on the embassy was timed to occur just before the 2012 general election. The well armed militia were on a mission-namely to make the US look weak. The reaction, to the attack, in Washington, WAS political. How could it not be? The president wanted to get re-elected. Already criticized for his foreign policy failures, Mr. Obama’s handlers feared his reputation would be further tarnished and we would indeed look weak. Whomever it was that came up with the horsesh*t about an anti-muslim movie ‘riling’ the natives, was actually a genius. It was working. Only on the next occurring sunday, when Susan Rice was told to publicly repeat the half-baked rumour(probably BECAUSE it was deemed as effective propaganda)did the narrative go completely off the tracks. But Mr. Obama got re-elected and the rightwing is still, to this daym p.o.-ed about that. The Benghazi story has no blue dresses. They just wish it did.

Posted by johnnyrocket23 | Report as abusive

Lying to the public was normalized in the Bill Clinton era. Remember, there was this debate about whether lying was that bad after all?

Then, the Bush administration took it to new heights with the Iraq war.

Now, what’s a little Benghazi? Four Americans against a Clinton? C’mon, the more you speak it the more you get ridiculed.

Posted by Neslihan | Report as abusive

This article is clothed in a clever tergiversation. The issue is not scandals and their occurrence, zombie-like or otherwise. If so, we would eventually be led to the conclusion that scandals, especially the zombie-like, make great profits for the media.

Four dead Americans. That is the issue. Regardless of the circus surrounding it, that point must be addressed. And without prevarication.

Nixon was forced to accept responsibility for his actions. If these deaths could have been avoided, someone should be held accountable.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

I’m not even sure what the supposed scandal IS, quite frankly. That for three days Obama tried to link the events in Benghazi to the events that occurred on the same day in Egypt? That sounds like honest ignorance to me. It’s childish and naive to expect people to know EXACTLY what happened in such a chaotic situation AS it’s happening. The ‘truth’ came out by day 3. The GOP didn’t particularly care when US embassies were attacked and people died under Bush. This seems like a colossal waste of public money from the party that touts itself as the fiscally responsible option.

Posted by Ozymandias870 | Report as abusive

Anyone who supports the lies told by the Obama administration is willfully supporting the demise of the country. Clinton lied to the families of those that were killed while looking them straight in the eyes and then would not answer questions asked by congress. Hilary like her husband is an embarrassment and a danger to the country. Hopefully the voters will see it. Those that disagree are willfully supporting the demise of the country.

Posted by Bighammerman | Report as abusive

What U.S. Americans forget is that this occurred on Sept 11, 2012. Massive popular uprisings against North Africa and Middle East autocratic regimes were sweeping the region known as the “Arab Spring. These protest were popular uprisings NOT led by al-Qaeda. Mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt had been ongoing for more than 20 months since Jan 2011. These regimes had quickly fallen as a result. Then on October 20 2011 Libya’s Qaddafi was overthrown and killed. Libya was still lawless with many armed militias a year later. When the attack in Benghazi occurred security was not well in place.

Embassy security against mob attack is the responsibility of the host country. U.S. American media tends to see things through a pinhole of time and space. Many many people were killed as a result of these regimes and also during the protests. Libya was a dangerous place then and still is today.

Posted by FriendofEgypt | Report as abusive

How can this article incorrectly say it was on a partisan vote when 7 Democrats also voted for the select committee?
Also how can they continually call it a scandal when the President and his followers labelled it a phony scandal?
I would be happier to see the select committee investigate why no one has been arrested. Libya depends on American good will and they certainly should and could be leaned on to help the US in obtaining the guilty parties.

Posted by desertares | Report as abusive

The brainless sheeple will continue voting party lines no matter what their traitorous leaders do. Thus the rapid decline of this once-great country will continue unabated.

Posted by sjfella | Report as abusive

Never really thought there was anything here except Susan Rice being a complete and total jerk. Can’t believe Obama wanted her as SecState afterwards.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

@Curmudgeon: She was not being a jerk. She was being a good soldier, falling on her sword for her Commander, which is why he offered her a promotion as her reward.

Posted by Dr_Steve | Report as abusive

It will be kept alive for obvious political reasons until after the 2016 election. After that, yes, the author is right. It will linger on forever in small minds and corners of the country.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

When you speak of zombies and the brain dead you speak of GOP. This non existent scandal that the Dems in typical wishy washy fear allow. NO you don’t have to allow a façade of a political party to invent scandal, you stand up to them. Lets talk abut the red menace and the blue fools. GO deregulation mass murderers while the nation sleeps. Republican judge Jerry Smith overturned a EPA ban on asbestos in 91 that lasted only a year before a red sate court of imbeciles were on it. Ten thousand Americans die EVERY year. Many safe subs. If banned today it will murder for another fifty years But yeah that Benghazi PR thing right? Hey TV news how about that Prince Harry right? Hey asbestos lawyers why add at the end call your rep and demand the murder stop and ban asbestos, I mean you got a good racket going right? Hey GOP yell less government so the next murdering product in line like Celeberx can make billionaires out of killers, get sued for millions and laugh it off. Your scandal of Benghazi is pathetic, human excrement playing games as a nation sleeps and murder rates Osama Bin ladin only dreamed of runs rampant at the hands of lobbyist owned whores who represent the puppeteers and not the citizens of this dead nation

Posted by guitarmahn | Report as abusive

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