Benghazi: The zombie scandal
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.
For 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.
It 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.
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?”
The 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.
Second, 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.