Carnival of Smoke and Mirrors

There are few things in Washington that get the political juices flowing more quickly than an important Congressional hearing. Part heavyweight title bout, part high school musical, when the gavel comes down and the kleig lights click on, America's leaders paste on their most serious faces and prepare for their five minutes of notoriety with all the care and solemnity of a bride getting ready for her walk down the aisle.

The Petraeus-Crocker vs. The Congress tag team title match was, if nothing else, a marvelous illustration of the dysfunctional nature of our politics. Lawmakers were not there to get information; they either knew what was going to be said or, more rarely, didn't care. Neither were most of our legislators seriously going to weigh all the testimony given and then make a careful, studied decision on what to do about Iraq. There are far more important determining factors in making that decision; like whether or not the folks back home will give the them the heave-ho for voting against their wishes come election day in 2008.

This is why rather than asking the witnesses questions, members generally gave speeches about why they support/oppose the surge, usually concluding by asking some rhetorical question along the lines of "How many times did you beat your wife today, General?" or "Why do puppies find you so irresistible, sir?"

At your run-of-the-mill, ordinary Congressional hearing, Members of Congress will likely not be in attendance throughout the entire day's testimony - even if the hearing is to be televised on C-Span. Nothing wrong with that. Congressmen have a tough job with many and varied duties. There are always constituents to greet, other hearings to attend, and the constant, losing battle with trying to keep ahead of the information flow - thousands of bills, analyses of bills, position papers from various interests, and a variety of other reading materials that any conscientious Congressman feels it his duty to read.

But somehow, on days where the national spotlight shines on an important Congressional hearing, everyone finds all the time necessary to remain glued to their seat for the duration. The home folks can't see you if you're not there. And with many more of them watching than normal, it is best to give the impression that you wouldn't want to miss a word of what the general and the ambassador were saying - even though the meat of their testimony has been circulating around Washington, D.C. for near a fortnight.

And then there is that other staple of important Congressional hearings - especially these last 6 years since the world turned upside down as a result of 9/11; protesters. Cameras and the national audience draw them like moths to a porch light. The best that can be said about them is that they add a little drama and color to the otherwise monotonous proceedings.

This is especially true when the Code Pinkers horn in on the action. Striking in their hot pink T-shirts, the ladies make for wonderful television as Capitol Hill police gingerly escort them away from the hearing, still shouting defiance at authority and whatever issue of the day has their panties all in a twist. I admired the way that the cops gently led the ladies out of the hearing room. In my youth, cops weren't so particular about obeying the niceties, frequently losing their temper and, as newsreels of the 60's show, were not shy about showing their disgust for my counterculture comrades by manhandling them before tossing them into a paddy wagon. No billy clubs or tear gas here. Police today get sensitivity training and special instruction in how to handle protesters and it shows. I wonder what some of those cops from my youth would have thought about "sensitivity training?"

On Monday, the Pinks interrupted General Petraeus several times at what seemed to be planned intervals. Obviously expecting trouble, the General would pause and wait stoically while Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) glowered from the dais and ordered the police to remove the disturbers, reminding the audience that there would be no tolerance for this sort of nonsense and that violators would be prosecuted.

What Skelton didn't say was which Democratic Congressman was stupid enough (or brazen enough) to give people clearly dressed in Code Pink gear tickets to attend the hearing? It's not like you could mistake them for kids on a high school trip to Washington or members of some all girl pom pom squad. I suppose, the conspiratorially minded could make the argument that it was Republicans who gave them tickets, hoping to make the Democrats look bad before a national audience.

Thankfully, from a Republican point of view, Moveon.Org didn't need their help in that department. The crew at Moveon.Org, with the subtly of a jackhammer, had a senior moment when they placed a full page advocacy ad in the New York Times with a picture of General Petreaus and a caption below it that read "General Petraeus or General Betray-Us?" If Karl Rove were still in the White House, the left may very well have accused him of placing the ad under Moveon's auspices. Only a Rovian plot, they might say, would account for the utter stupidity of placing an ad that slimed a four star general with an unblemished record of service to the government and people of the United States.

The firestorm that ad lit on Capitol Hill had Republicans gleefully rushing to defend the general's honor while Democrats were forced to scramble for cover. The distraction was a godsend for those who support full funding for the surge in that it almost certainly forced Democrats to tone down their own criticism of the general's testimony while giving the general's supporters the opportunity to harshly denounce a huge asset to the Democratic party while calling on their colleagues across the aisle to disavow the ad itself.

Of course, all of this has absolutely nothing to do with Iraq. But it was great political theater.

As far as performance of the principals goes, you don't get to be a general commanding troops in a war unless you can impress while testifying before Congress. Petraeus fills that bill to a "T." Ramrod straight with a clear, commanding voice, the general oozed authority and gushed sincerity. Ambassador Crocker was, well, ambassadorial. A career state department employee, his dry, technical recitations were just what you would expect from a dedicated bureaucrat.

Both men appeared to answer the few serious questions tossed their way as directly as possible. The unserious questions they treated seriously anyway. It was an impressive performance - and as illuminating as a flashlight with dead batteries. Despite the use of colorful slides and graphs, the presentation revealed very little that wasn't already leaked or disclosed in some other report.

The performance of Congress was even less entertaining. By the time the 10th or 11th member got their turn, one could almost recite along with the Congressman his opening words: Praise for the troops; a nod to the great job the general was doing; thanks to Ambassador Crocker. Moveon, bad. Bush, bad. Bring the boys home.

At this point, most of their time had expired and the member would frantically ask a question. Showing the patience of Job, Petreaus generally tried to make the Member look good by struggling to answer the same question 20 different ways.

Watching the fiasco made me grateful that our Founders had the good sense to schedule elections so often.

For all the words written about the importance of this hearing in the last months, it was certainly anti-climactic. But that wasn't the general's fault. Or the Congress's problem either. It is simply the nature of our political system and how it is conducted these days. Each player has a part in the drama and performs to expectations. It's what happens when government becomes theater, a drama played out on television with the people tuned in expecting Law and Order or The West Wing. And like any bad TV show, people will eventually stop watching.