White House spin-masters nowadays provide words rather than talking points. “Micromanagement”, already commented upon here, was useful for obfuscating the debate about whether Congress could formulate its own policy for Iraq by applying a criticism of the relation between civilian executive leadership and the military to whether Congress had the authority to stipulate the conditions under which the money it provided to the Executive could be used. A term making the rounds now as a way to make notorious the Congressional attempts to subpoena White House employees about Attorneygate is “show trial”. Think about what that term means for a minute and you realize how outrageous the charge is, however dim may be the Senators who make it uninformed as they may be (I hope so) of its origins.
Show trials were used in the Soviet Union to get rid of Old Bolsheviks who no longer followed Stalin’s line. They confessed after torture to false charges of having tried to overthrow the regime and were then executed. These trials were what Koestler portrayed in Darkness at Noon and what Orwell had in mind when he invented how one could come to love Big Brother. Show trials were also used by Castro in the early days of his regime, where Batista followers, themselves torturers, were dragged into huge arenas and given trials lacking in procedural safeguards before the defendants were convicted, sentenced, and executed in short order. The Havana show trials were used as a reason to distrust Castro, thereby changing the subject from the cozy relation that had existed between American corporations and the Batista regime.
The term “show trial” therefore comes with heavy baggage and so to apply it to a Congressional investigation which wants to hear under oath from White House officials who may have engaged in criminal activities is hardly a “show trial”, given the inability of Congress to convict anyone of anything even if it can hold people in contempt. Indeed, the Congressional investigation does not even warrant being called “McCarthyite”, that overstepping of Congressional bounds which was designed to humiliate witnesses, hold them up for contempt, and lose them their jobs for having had the effrontery to have held ideas in the Thirties that became even more highly unpopular in the Forties.
What, I wonder, would a Republican Congressperson who throws around the term “show trial” say if confronted with this brief history. Say it is not to the point, or that he was just making a point, not making comparisons, or why should he bother with what intellectuals say anyway? I think that last one is what it would be hardest for him to suppress saying. He would think, if he were charitable, that I just didn’t get what qualifies as argument in Congress: anything, no matter how exaggerated.
Not that the Democrats don’t engage in clearly spurious arguments. The latest is Pelosi’s attempt, at this moment on hold, to give Washington D. C. a full fledged member of the House of Representatives despite the fact that the Constitution says that Representatives have to come from the several states, not from other bodies. The Founding Fathers, in fact, knew that they had provided in the Constitution for a Federal District to be controlled by Congress, and so could have provided it with some form of representation in Congress if they had wanted to. The argument presented for the Democrats by Ken Starr, among other worthies, is that Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court decision that representation is apportioned according to the one man-one vote principle, so that Congresspersons are not apportioned to districts on the basis of the rural nature of the district, requires representation for the District of Columbia, as does the fact that District residents were able to vote in Virginia or Maryland for the first ten years of the Constitution. Both opinions are lame. If one man-one vote could overturn parts of the Constitution, then the Senate could be ruled out of existence since a Senator from New York represents far more people than a Senator from Nevada. But that is the way the Constitution set it up and that is the way it will continue until the Constitution is amended. What happened between 1791 and 1801 was a one time thing having to do with the conversion of District territory from State to Federal control and so is not binding on what is allowed to the District once it was established. Yes, there is an inequity here that could be resolved by returning Washington, D. C. to Maryland, something Maryland, in its wisdom, does not wish to happen.
I guess Congress people of all stripes have no shame about parading arguments that make no sense just so that they can make sounds that make them appear to engage in argument so as to support a cause that makes sense politically because it serves the interests of a party’s base or those outliers it hopes to win over to their cause. Legislatures are messy places, engaged in reason, strictly speaking, only sometimes, when it suits them.
Sometimes I wonder why a witness before a House committee doesn’t simply get all self-righteous, just the way Congresspersons do. A Danish expert on the economics of global warming who had the temerity to disagree with Al Gore’s presentation made earlier in the day, last week, was told that he was making Nazi-like arguments. I wonder why he didn’t stop the hearings by saying something to the effect that he would challenge the Congressman to a duel if that were still a going practice, and that the least the Congressman could do was provide a written apology. The Dane, instead, hurried over the accusation, apparently embarrassed for the person who would say such a thing, and also because he wanted to have his point of view heard. I wish he had lost his temper. That would have done the Congress more good, by stopping the demagoguery in its tracks for a moment, than presenting the facts about global warming that are slowly making their way into public discussion, even the Times carrying a piece last week that Al Gore’s movie was not all that solid, whatever the merits of his cause, which the Times continues to support. The question is how to give Congress a sense of shame so that it acts more responsibly, whichever party is in power.