Benghazi investigation: A look at where it fits in the history of Washington scandals

There was a time when mishaps weren't scandals

WASHINGTON, D.C. - We are suffering from scandal inflation.

We are calling things scandals that are not. We are bringing the investigative zeal appropriate to real scandals down on different sorts of follies – on mishaps, bungles and even tragedies. 

The “we” here is Congress in cahoots with the conventional press and blogosphere media.

In the latest chapter, House Republicans have decided to convene a special committee to investigate the Benghazi un-scandal.

I thought it might be useful to try to put the Benghazi episode into a broader historical context and look at how the anatomy of political scandals – real and fake – has changed over the years.  Scandal mongering has become a key way Congress fights presidents and, regrettably, an important dynamic in how we are governed.

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Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., listens to testimony during a hearing titled "Reviews of the Benghazi Attack and Unanswered Questions." (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

And at the end of all of this, I am going to swear off of ever again using the word scandal too promiscuously.

The word: Scandal

The word scandal turns out to have an interesting etymological history and it is instructive for the present age.

One root of scandal is the Greek word skandalon, which means “a stumbling block” or “trap or snare laid for an enemy.”

A second ancestor is Latin, scandalum, “cause for offense.” This evolved into the modern usage. In the 1580s, scandale in French meant, “discredit caused by irreligious conduct.”

The ordinary meaning of scandal today obviously comes from the Latin. But I would suggest the modern American political scandal is much more a descendant of the Greek skandalon. Political scandals are now too often about “snares laid for an enemy” than they are about any or original sin or offense. They are about the drama of investigation, the quest for media attention and the destruction of a political enemy. Indeed, it is scandalous how politicians and their enablers in the media try to exploit pseudo-scandals.

What’s new?

But is this new?

The basic scandals, we must assume, occur fairly constantly in our political history: sex scandals, money scandals, bribery, featherbedding, skimming, kickbacks and cover-ups. Attention to them by the press probably ebbs and flows. We know, for example, that in the early days of the Republic when ideological pamphleteers dominated the press reportage on scandals was lurid and irresponsible even by today’s TMZ-esque standards.

But as far as I can tell (and please correct me via comments or email), long and partisan inquisitions into “scandals” were not the constant factors in political life that they are now. In modern times, there is almost always an on-going congressional investigation into some area of the executive branch. Sometimes the sleuthing is also done by special counsels, prosecutors or commissions, but usually after congressional pressure. So that’s the kind of scandal dynamic I will focus on – legislative versus executive.

Before Watergate, the most infamous American scandal was Teapot Dome. There were several big executive branch scandals in the notoriously corrupt post-Civil War period but Congress wasn’t the Grand Inquisitor yet and Hearing as Political Theater was not yet the rage.

In 1922, President Warren Harding’s Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall, took a $400,000 bribe ($5.5 million in 2014 dollars!) from Mammoth Oil and Pan America Petroleum to hand over the rights to the Teapot Dome oil field in Wyoming. The Senate drove the initial investigation and the story was big news.  Fall went to jail and new legislation changed how federal oil leases worked. But at the very first hearing, only three committee members showed up and the hearing was canceled; scandal-theater was not the attraction that it would become.

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An estimated 30 million Americans watched the 'Kefauver hearings' in 1950-51, some in movie theaters like this one. (The Pop History Dig/M. Rougier/Life)

It was, of course, the advent of radio and television that changed the dynamic of political scandals, especially TV.  Television gave politicians a way to do their business live in front of a TV audience. And the court-like atmosphere of a congressional hearing proved to be an attractive vehicle.

The first big TV hearing extravaganza began in May 1950 when Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee, launched a long investigation of organized crime. This was big deal entertainment at the time, even though a television set was still a scarce luxury. People went to movie theaters during the day to watch the Kefauver hearings on TV.

In 1951, Kefauver took the show to New York City for eight days of hearing. “The week of March 12, 1951, will occupy a special place in history,” Life magazine wrote at the time. “People had suddenly gone indoors into living rooms, taverns, and clubrooms, auditoriums and back-offices. There, in eerie half-light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed. Never before had the attention of the nation been riveted so completely on a single matter.”

The next great “investigative” spectacle in Congress showed how dangerous congressional prosecution can be since there is no judge, jury, appeals process or rules of procedure or evidence. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts played out in Senate hearing rooms. They came to a head with the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, a huge spectacle that proved to be McCarthy’s downfall.

On the other side of the aisle, House Speaker Sam Rayburn had banned television cameras from House hearing rooms. There were some high profile, televised Senate hearings later in the 1950s and 1960s, but nothing like what was coming next.

The scandals of Watergate

The great game-changer was Watergate. On May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee began weeks of riveting hearings, chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin. Later, the action moved to the House Judiciary committee under Rep. Peter Rodino. The Watergate hearings became the archetypal congressional inquisition. They have influenced the anthropology and practice of politics and journalism ever since.

After Watergate, politicians have wanted to star in their own big hearings just like Ervin and Sen. Howard Baker had done. And reporters wanted to be Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. Cameras would become ubiquitous in hearing rooms; that cat was way out the bag.  And hearings became vehicles for members to bypass the news media and get on TV directly in front of the voters. Hearings became more spectacular, with more celebrity witness and juicier topics.

All of this sped up the Scandal Production Process.

The taxonomy of investigations

Since Watergate, there have been several formats for congressional scandal mongering.

As noted earlier, the archetypal political scandal is Watergate – the highest form.  The necessary ingredients are:  strong evidence of wrongdoing concerning matters of real importance with constitutional, foreign policy, security or policy ramifications; evidence leading high up in government; strong bipartisan consensus that Congress needs to investigate; usually, a parallel investigation by a special counsel, special executive branch committee or federal prosecutors.

Two post-Watergate investigations clearly fit the bill: the Iran-Contra affair during President Ronald Reagan’s term and the various investigations into the existence of weapons of mass destruction in pre-war Iraq during President George W. Bush’s term. 

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Monica Lewinsky (Getty Images)

The attempted impeachment of President Bill Clinton for actions related to the Monica Lewinsky affair probably belongs in this category, though there was no bipartisan support for the impeachment process.

Another important format is the confirmation hearing. The great episodes of this genre were the battles over Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas and John Tower. These were consuming media events at the time, with live gavel-to-gavel coverage and high ratings.

These confirmation battles drastically changed the process of nominating and confirming executive branch personnel. The process has become much more confrontational and investigative; the vetting of nominees is gargantuan; the process is lengthy and politicized.

Another type of investigation is more cannibalistic. In the 1980s and 90s there were a number of cases, especially in the House, where members investigated each other through the ethics committees or as freelancers, pushing reporters and prosecutors to various allegations. The list of Senators and members who were targeted this way is long and includes: Jim Wright, Tony Coelho, David Durenberger, Dan Rostenkowski, Newt Gingrich and the so-called Keating Five.

Finally, there are investigations where something bad happened, where there is some evidence of either wrong-doing, impropriety, incompetence or fumbling, but minimal bipartisan support for prolonged investigation and no findings of criminality by special counsels or prosecutors.

The big inquisitions of the Obama administration all belong to this category: the botched gunrunning sting known as Fast and Furious, the IRS audits of tax-exempt political groups and, of course, Benghazi.

The investigations into the non-scandals of Whitewater and Travelgate during the Clinton administration also belong in this category.  And Republicans would probably include the affair known as Lawyergate, where several U.S. attorneys across the country were fired at the start of George W. Bush’s second term.

Pseudo-Scandals

It is this last form of congressional inquisition that seems to be in vogue and appears likely to stick around.  And there is one key variable now that didn’t exist during Watergate, the big confirmation spectacles or the early years of the second Bush administration: explicitly ideological cable television networks reinforced by ideological "news" web sites.

Fox News has championed and crusaded about Fast and Furious, the IRS and Benghazi. Similarly, MSNBC went completely berserk over the Chris Christie bridge escapade. If MSNBC had made its leftward turn 10 years earlier, I’m willing to bet they would have been as blinkered about the WMD investigations as Fox has been about Benghazi. But it has to be said that Republicans in the House have been far more aggressive scandalmongers than Republicans in the Senate or Democrats.

But I think the malady will prove to be bipartisan. The polarization and decline of comity in Congress exacerbates the predilection to demonize via inquisition. The political cheapness and unfairness best exemplified by negative political ads echoes throughout the political world. The pseudo-scandal hearing is the moral equivalent of a taxpayer funded negative ad.

We should be embarrassed by these ads and by our scandal mongering. These are scandals of the Greek variety, more snares set for enemy than the stories of true sinners.

Solutions?

The amount of political oxygen pseudo-scandals take up is, well, scandalous. But it is not the kind of problem that is susceptible to intentional solutions wrought by legislation or commissions.

For my part, I will go back to the word’s roots and recognize that today, most scandals are not real sins and crimes, but traps.  So I am retiring the word scandal from my lexicon except for the most clear-cut and obvious cases.  And no more “gates” at the end of nouns.  At least I’ll feel cleaner.

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