During Watergate, President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, became infamous for such remarks as, “This is the operative statement; the others are inoperative” in the face of the developing scandal. Say what you want about Mr. Ziegler, who passed away a decade ago, that phrase was at least an admission that something the presidential aide had said from the White House pressroom podium had been wrong.
After last week’s Benghazi hearings, current White House press secretary Jay Carney could take a few lessons from his predecessor. Instead, in the face of the biggest White House cover-up since the Clinton White House’s Monica Lewinski scandal, Mr. Carney is facing the cameras each day and maintaining the truth of every word the administration has uttered about the attack on the Libyan consulate and the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The hearings made Mr. Carney’s stance untenable, yet still he keeps on keeping on. Maybe the reason is that his model for coping is not Watergate but Monicagate.
As the Lewinski revelations came tumbling forth a decade and a half ago, the Clinton White House became desperate to get control of the public record. First Lady Hillary Clinton’s initial move was to go on the Today show and charge that the entire affair was the product of a “vast right wing conspiracy.” The media immediately turned its attention from presidential peccadilloes and chased her husband’s chasers.
In the Benghazi affair, of course, Mrs. Clinton has used the same tactic for the same purpose. This time in testimony before a Congressional committee, she cried out, “What difference could it possibly make anyway?” And again, immediately the media embraced the idea that the Secretary of State and the President were the victims of the contemporary equivalent of that conspiracy of yesteryear.
The problem this time, though, is that in its substance Benghazi is far more serious than the Lewinski Affair. Democrats tried to spin Monicagate (largely successfully) as “just about sex.” But this time in place of a stained blue dress, there are four dead bodies.
A the same time, the official issue and the reason the Lewinski scandal led to Mr. Clinton’s impeachment was that the president lied to prosecutors under oath. It was a display of defiance by the chief executive towards another co-equal branch of government that demanded more than a reprimand but less than being thrown out of office.
But as I say, because of the deaths involved, Benghazi is different – and so harder for the White House to control. That lack of control is a big problem now for Team Obama. Again during the Lewinski scandal, the White House deployed a vast army of attorneys to represent every individual who the special prosecutor might subpoena. The Clinton people wanted to control the record coming out of the grand jury proceedings, which were closed to the public, including their attorneys. So their lawyers coached every witness scheduled for testifying and debriefed them thoroughly after they came out.
In Benghazi, the witnesses are career State Department and other U.S. government agency officials and the investigation is by congressional committee. Last week revealed that controlling the record was no longer an option. The trail of lies had run into the wall of truth.
Everyone knows why the administration dissembled about the attacks (Secretary Clinton may have done so under oath, but probably no one else did). The fact of a terrorist attack on a US facility in the Middle East did not fit the reelection narrative that al Qaeda and its ilk were no more, thanks to the president’s successful strategy. But no testimony has yet revealed why the president or the secretary made no attempt to save our diplomat and his entourage, even though a rescue mission was said to have been ready to move out.
Last week in this space, I speculated that the failure to act might have been the product of hubris, the wages of pride. From the first, the administration has seemed to view all past lessons of US national security strategy as irrelevant, the “failed policies of the past.” So they haven’t planned the way past administrations did and appear to have had no thoroughly thought through approach for dealing with an attack on a facility overseas – with diplomatic and other factors weighed as well as military ones.
Still, how much planning did it take? Your men are under fire. A plane is ready to fly to the rescue. All Washington had to do was say, “Go.”
Maybe there is something in this conundrum that Mr. Carney is still charged with hiding. More likely, like Ron Zeigler with his inoperative statements, he is flailing. It is sad to watch – and disturbing… the sign of an administration that has no idea how to handle a crisis at the time more crises are surely coming our nation’s way.