Oversight, Overload?

As Congress uncovers White House incompetence, the media seems eager to show trials and partisanship rather than examine the issues.

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April 26, 2007 Is Alberto Gonzales’ oft-repeated mantra, “I don’t recall,” destined to become a classic in the genre? Similar to, say, Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook”? We are loathe to predict the future, but as congressional Democrats boldly displayed their commitment to investigations with three new subpoenas on Wednesday—eager to plumb the depths of the administration’s incompetence—much of the media appear eager to construct a narrative about show trials and partisanship rather than examine the actual issues at hand.

The most recent—and dramatic—example of these hearings was Tuesday’s House Oversight Committee session on wartime public relations, which focused on the famous cases of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and Cpl. Pat Tillman, both of whose respective experiences as a prisoner and victim of friendly fire were lied about by the administration and credulously reported on by the media.

Kevin Tillman, Pat Tillman’s brother who served with him in Afghanistan, expressed the view of many Americans who support subpoenas for Bush officials and approve of Congress’s work: “It’s a bit disingenuous to think that the administration did not know about what was going on, something so politically sensitive,” he said in his testimony. “So that’s kind of what we were hoping you guys could get involved with and take a look [at].”

I noted David Broder’s column a few weeks ago in The Washington Post where he said, “it seems doubtful that Democrats can help themselves a great deal just by tearing down an already discredited Republican administration with more investigations … At some point, Democrats have to give people something to vote for.” (Recall that during the election, Chris Matthews tried to get Nancy Pelosi to actually promise not to undertake any special investigations, as if he were on the Republican National Committee payroll.)

Alas, in the interim, Broder and his fellow fan of the Bush administration, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, have each called upon Gonzales to resign—even before his disastrous outing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Krauthammer criticizes the attorney general’s incompetence—which he probably wouldn’t have recognized so clearly without the hearings—while Broder laments President Bush’s Reaganesque refusal to show Gonzales the door in an article in which he reveals, incidentally, that he got the Reagan budget director his first job. So apparently some of this congressional oversight turns out to be useful after all—especially in the case of this administration, where arrogance and dishonesty compete to outpace incompetence and ideology.

And what of the other dreaded investigations? Just take a look at Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) House Oversight and Government Reform Committee website. The group is scheduled to consider no less than seven new subpoenas on issues ranging from the “Duke” Cunningham bribery scandal to potentially illegal political activities by executive branch appointees and the perennial issue of who blew Valerie Plame’s cover, and, more importantly, why. They issued two to the RNC to probe allegations of misconduct by executive branch appointees and, more dramatically, one to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asking her for information about “the fabricated claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger and other issues.”

In a particularly meta twist, the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel has announced that it will investigate allegations that the White House used government agencies for political purposes—even as the head of the office is under investigation by another executive branch agency, the Office of Personnel Management, for accusations of politicizing his own work. Is this too a waste of time—an avoidance of the responsibilities of governance?

Would this explain why President Bush warned Congress against “[h]ead[ing] down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key White House officials and documents available. I have proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse. I hope they don’t choose confrontation. I will oppose any attempts to subpoena White House officials”? Might it speak to the nervousness of Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA)—the ranking Republican on the oversight committee—who called the new subpoenas “political theatrics”?

The New Republic editors reminded the rest of us that “congressional Democrats would be derelict if they did not vigorously pursue apparent abuses of power by the Bush administration.” Indeed, it was exactly this dereliction of duty under the Republican Congress that allowed so many scandals to take place during the Bush administration virtually unimpeded. As Elizabeth Williamson reported in The Washington Post, “Before new investigators came on board, some Hill staffers resorted to using Google to search for documents, oblivious to Congress’s power to demand them.”

And while the word “history” is too often deployed in the media as a synonym for “irrelevant,” The New Republic’s editors had the bad manners to recall subpoena-happy Republican House Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), the previous Chair of the Oversight Committee. Burton has been knocked about the blogosphere for his infamous 1,000-plus subpoenas—only 11 of which directed accusations toward Republican misconduct.

Students of the topic might also wish to check out Waxman’s exhaustive look at the ‘90s investigative precedent. Republicans are still somehow reported—with a proverbial straight face—to be concerned that the current Congress “may be abusing its subpoena powers.” And while this concern was expressed in Roll Call, its sentiments were seconded by Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel, who told Chris Matthews, “I am so uninterested in the Democrats wanting Karl Rove because it is so bad for them.”

Some pundits are willing to take this argument as far as full fabrication. Media Matters caught Chris Matthews at it when he claimed that two-thirds of Americans think Gonzales should keep his job. (This recalled Andrea Mitchell’s made-up assertion on “Hardball,” hosted at the time by David Gregory, that a majority of Americans wanted to see I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby pardoned. She made that one up too.)

All of this misinformation and misperception in the media only strengthens the tendencies of Mr. Denial-in-Chief, giving him license to make otherwise bizarre statements like his announcement Monday evening that Gonzales’ pathetic Senate performance only “increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.” This, after Gonzales’ more than 50 assertions that he could not remember meetings he attended as recently as last October.

But given how long Don Rumsfeld hung around—endorsed by Bush just days before the announcement of his “resignation,” even as American soldiers continued to die needlessly on behalf of a failed strategy the administration consistently refused to reconsider—such Alice-in-Wonderland rhetoric has lost its ability to shock. So, too, alas, the media’s continued gullibility…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

Research assistance: Tim Fernholz

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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