The plan was ingenious - conflate the words "scandal" and "Obama." Use it to win in 2014, maybe even 2016. But especially after a week of real news, the IRS, Benghazi, and AP "scandals" now look like the inside of Al Capone's safe. Two questions: What will Fox do? (We know the answer.) What should network anchors do?
Dear Brian, Diane, Scott,
You three collectively represent the best prophylactic to stop the virus of manufactured "scandals" from contaminating our politics and government for years to come.
Scandals are not merely screw-ups, stupidities, mistakes, policy disagreements. They imply elements of willful deception, illegality, corruption or immorality. As you know better than any, here were events worthy of the word: Teapot Dome; Bernard Goldfine's vincuna coat; Reagan's Iran-Contra illegality; Nixon's Watergate coverup; Clinton-Lewinsky; Scooter Libby going to jail.
Lois Lerner, Susan Rice and Eric Holder don't fit that bill.
The GOP today surely has a big challenge. Having handily lost the last two presidential elections, they now face a recovering economy; a deficit that's fallen by more than a third; the winding down of two unpopular wars; a personally popular Democrat in his presidential bully pulpit for 3+ years. How to get off the defensive?
Enter the scandal saga. Alert Republicans rubbed disparate stories together and ignited a mainstream media firestorm over Obama's "culture of intimidation" (McConnell), Watergate-like corruption (Will, Noonan), "lack of trust". From the gold medalist of Obama-haters, Michael Goodwin of the New York Post, came this Orson Wells headlin, "Obama Scandals Take Nation by Storm." A pleased Charles Krauthammer urged his fellow travelers to let the facts "speak for themselves" and avoid "overreaching."
Unfortunately for them, the current scorecard is factually meager:
*IRS: After months of hearings by Darrell Issa's Oversight Committee and numerous media inquires, we know that a) the IRS screened not just Tea Party groups but also progressive groups (key words: "progressive" and "Occupy") for 501c4 status; b) the original forms targeting conservative groups were begun by a self-professed "conservative Republican" in the Cincinnati office during the time that a Bush appointee was the Commissioner; c) reviews by both the Inspector General and current Commissioner, Danny Werfel, found no political motivations behind the "scandal" and no involvement by White House or Obama campaign staff.
As for whether more Tea Party groups were looked at than progressive groups - that's a level of navel-gazing that vaporizes the meaning of "scandal".
Why did Lois Lerner take the 5th amendment? Dunno. Perhaps when her lawyer heard House Speaker John Boehner assert that some IRS people "should go to jail", he thought that was pretty threatening.
Given the lack of evidence, GOP critics have retreated to the lower ground of asserting that the IRS was just following presidential hints to go after right-wing groups. What hints? Obama in 2012 rightly worried about hundreds of millions of political dollars posing as social welfare expenditures...but apparently the IRS never got the memo to actually investigate Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS.
So: no Nixon-like orders to the IRS; no "Enemies List"; no scandal. In my view, Issa is the scandal given his patent bias, show trials, selective leaking - or the scandal is how the IRS neglected to investigate whether political power brokers were keeping big campaign gifts secret by pretending that they were "exclusively" or "primarily" (thank you Lawrence O'Donnell) social welfare charities.
*Benghazi: Snap quiz -- was the U.S. involvement in Libya a success or a failure? In hindsight, being a pivotal part of a multi-national effort that supported by the Arab League, toppled Quaddafi and produced a pro-Western transition government -- without the loss of a single American life -- looks pretty good...even if an anonymous aide awkwardly described the effort to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker as "leading from behind".
Then came the sudden, tragic attack on our consulate taking four American lives, including Ambassador Stevens.
Did Susan Rice's "Talking Points" prove a coverup in 2012? Because of a huge White House email dump last month in response to a congressional request, we now know that it was CIA director David Petraeus who originally suggested talking points to explain what happened. And it was his agency which wanted to mention the anti-Muslim video that had roiled Cairo the day before and to underplay links to al Qaeda -- not the White House or State. (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-05-21/politics/39420257_1_petraeus-benghazi-attack-house-permanent-select-committee
Did Rice say things based on CIA intel that turned out to be wrong? Yes. Have Republicans spent far more time investigating and blaming Barack Obama for these four dead "on his watch" than Democrats did for the 2800 dead on the original 9/11 on Bush's "watch"? Yes. Did three dozen other Americans die in terrorist attacks against American diplomatic offices during Bush's two terms without 1/1000th the attention paid to Benghazi? Yes. Is a lot of the invective aimed at a feared Hillary Clinton? We know the answer.
While 29 people went to jail over Watergate, wrote columnist Richard Cohen, "fudging a press release is not a crime. Compromising on wording is not a crime. Making a decision...that there was no time to call in the cavalry is not a crime."
No coverup. No willful deceit. No scandal.
*AP. A Commander-in-Chief worried about both the Nixon/Bush43 model of politicizing Justice and, of course, terrorist attacks on Americans kept hands-off at his Justice Department...while, in at least two instances, that DoJ went too far in investigating journalists for security leaks. There were no indictments or convictions of any journalists as both the President and AG Holder have now said that no journalist would be prosecuted "for doing his job."
Zero evidence of any malice, corruption, politicization. No instructions to all US Attorneys to pursue partisan, ideological cases, as AG Gonzalez did. No pattern or conspiracy beyond the clumsy AP subpoena and probe of James Rosen of Fox.
As for the much-discussed NSA, it can't be a "scandal" if it occurred under a law and program with bi-partisan support duly reported to the Intelligence Committees. There's now a policy debate on how to best balance security and privacy when it comes to NSA programs and 4th Amendment warrants. But a "scandal"? Not close...though imagine what the RNC would have said if a young Democratic president who never served in the military had refused to continue a program supported by his predecessor and Congress...and then the Boston Marathon attack occurred?
What we have here is a shell game without even one pea. Combining three non-scandals doesn't magically create one real one. Now that the facts have exposed the scandal of non-scandals, can we expect Noonan and Hannity etc. to stop triumphantly throwing around the word "scandals" like some self-evident Q.E.D.? Can they instead start to look into real problems like Syria, the Sequester, student loans?
Fat chance. Why talk policy when they can just put on an Obama mask and shout "boo!" Instead, we should all expect a continuing stew of innuendo, adjectives, vitriol, falsehoods, "BREAKING NEWS ALERTS," and always more questions - why didn't FBI Director Mueller know who was leading the Bureau's IRS investigation when asked at a hearing last week; how could IRS staff now get bonuses under federal pay agreements? Chasing down every allegation is hopeless because there's always another one coming - like the original ones about "Barack Nixon" (an actual Noonan headline) lying about Benghazi and targeting only conservative 501c4 applications.
But then there's the truth of Twain's observation that "a lie gets half-way around the world before truth puts on her boots." So should targets reply or shrug?
Which brings me to you three. Whatever the smart responses in the world of hardball politics, I implore you (and your researchers and producers) to be very wary of being turned into conveyor belts of Issa and Fox propaganda. They can put on as many show trials and biased segments as they want but you're the main line of defense protecting the public when they selectively leak and exaggerate to pressure you to cover smoke as if it were fire.
It's Edward Murrow time - for the standard is not balance but truth. Over to you.