Too many people give Washington politics a bum rap. Sure, it can be excruciating if you’re following the issues and hoping for a certain result. It’s frustratingly predictable, infuriating in its futility and perhaps even a bit terrifying in its inability to address the most urgent crises.
If you stand back and watch the choreography, though, there’s a certain poetry to it. Seeing how the players group and regroup, observing the different ways they go at each other to score points, you can find the sort of subtlety, power and occasional elegance usually found only in ballet and pro football.
Nowhere is the choreography more compelling than in debates that touch on the Middle East. On other issues — taxes, abortion, energy — people say what they mean. If they’re lying, their foes say so. When it comes to Israel, terrorism and Islamic extremism, it’s all kabuki and shadowboxing.
Take, for instance, the July 25 meeting of the House Homeland Security Committee, which was devoted to testimony by the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano. What unfolded, after her dull-as-nails report, was pure poetry. Lawmakers took turns questioning her, alternating between Republicans and Democrats, respectively bludgeoning and flattering her. The Republicans all asked variations on one question: Why can’t the administration stay focused on the singular threat of Muslim extremists? The Democrats all tried changing the subject to something else: port security, public alertness programs, Oklahoma City-style right-wing terrorism — anything.
The exchanges achieved something like pageantry during one half-hour stretch when the questioning settled into a metronomic alternation of white men (Republicans) and black women (Democrats). Republicans reached for drama; Democrats spoke soothingly. You could almost picture weaving lines of dancers, each with its own melody playing: “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (or was it “Dixie”?) on one side, “Kumbaya” on the other.
The drama peaked when Republican Paul Broun of Georgia bluntly declared that “political correctness” is “going to kill people.” Napolitano angrily started to protest his “wording,” but Broun shouted her down. He demanded to know how a security officers’ training program she had described can prevent attacks “without singling out individuals due to religious or political beliefs.” Then, with sublime lack of irony, he proceeded to complain about intelligence profiling that flags “gun-owner, Christian-conservative, pro-life” types as possible threats. “That’s me,” he said. “How are you going to prevent me from being identified as a terrorist?”
For a different sort of choreography, consider a teach-in held several days earlier in a different meeting room, sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the House Israel Allies Caucus. The title of the half-day program was “Oslo, 20 Years Later.” (It’s actually only been 19 years, but who’s counting?) Open to the public, it was billed as an “honest conversation about the prospects for peace in the Middle East in light of the failed peace process.” That turned out to be half true. The talk was largely honest, but the conversation had a hidden agenda, a sort of soft-shoe shuffle.