Frank Rich on the National Circus: The GOP Goes Benghazi on Boston

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14: U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (R), and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (L) speak to the press during a news conference on the terror attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi February 14, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The senators questioned why the Obama Administration did not seek enough help from the Libya government during the attack. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Wong/2013 Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the GOP calls for an “enemy combatant” in Boston; gun control suffers an unsurprising defeat; and David and Charles Koch float a new identity — press barons.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for the Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be held as an “enemy combatant.” There’s no agreed upon legal precedent for holding a U.S. citizen as an “enemy combatant” or even holding a foreign fighter captured on U.S. soil under that distinction. (Both the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui and the “Blind Sheikh” were successfully tried in civilian court.) What are McCain and Graham up to here?
There’s no such thing as farcical relief from a horror as painful and raw as the terrorist bombings in Boston. But the attempts by McCain, Graham, and some of their colleagues to find some way, any way, to politicize these attacks border on dark farce nonetheless. There have already been at least three waves in the GOP effort to turn Boston into the new Benghazi. First, Chuck Grassley implied that the bombings be used as a pretext to delay immigration reform. That political strategy died when some members of his own caucus remembered that immigration reform is at the top of the Republication rebranding to-do list following the party’s 2012 debacle with Hispanic voters. Then came the “enemy combatant” push —  an illegal nonstarter for the reasons you cite and instantly shut down by the White House. Now there’s Plan No. 3: Susan Collins and Peter King, among others, have started exploiting Boston to attack presumed Obama administration “intelligence failures.” Yet from all accounts thus far, there’s little to suggest that the FBI (the operative agency here) did anything wrong except follow the letter of American law in tracking the Tsarnaev brothers in response to the information it had from the Russian government. What will be Plan 4 to politicize Boston? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter feed showed a fondness for Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Perhaps Hollywood can be held to blame for this terrorist incident much as it is, in the right’s reckoning, for Aurora and Newtown. Even now younger staffers for McCain and Graham may be prepping them for Sunday talk-show appearances in which they will be required to be conversant with the noble houses of Lannister and Stark.

The bipartisan compromise on a background check for gun purchasers went down in the Senate last week even though polls show that 90 percent of Americans support it. President Obama called the failed effort “shameful.” Are there any lessons we should draw from the demise of this bill? 
Several. It’s become a Beltway trope this week that Obama himself is part of the problem, lacking the skills (or the staff) needed to strong-arm members of his own party, let alone those of the opposition, to get the job done in a Democratic-run Senate. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. Had this bill had gotten through the Senate, it surely would have died in the Republican House, even if LBJ were back in the White House. Another lesson, and it’s one I’ve talked about before, is that the mythos of guns and the Second Amendment are ingrained fixtures in America’s identity and culture, dating back to the nation’s founding, and may take as long to reform as that other American birthright of slavery — decades, not months. It’s been fascinating to watch Establishment figures — Mayor Bloomberg, op-ed pundits, et al. — be shocked to learn that it is not so easy to get their way despite all the moral thunder on their side. The Senate’s decision to take a vote on the measure, overcoming Republican threats of a filibuster, was prematurely hailed as a victory by these forces. As the Times optimistically put it in a front-page story, the NRA was “facing its most difficult test in decades.” Four days later, after the defeat, reality returned and a front-page headline read “Despite Tearful Pleas, No Real Chance.” 

Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are said to be in the running to buy the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun, among other properties. What would a newspaper empire mean for the arch-conservative megadonors?
A losing investment, I suspect. The efforts by right-wing moneybags to buy major newspapers in liberal cities have usually come to naught — remember the Reverend Moon’s Washington Times — drawing low readership, attracting little journalistic talent, and spewing buckets of red ink. And that has been the case even when the newspaper industry was healthy, which it certainly isn’t now. Rather than being in a tizzy about this, liberals should consider the possibility that the Kochs, press amateurs who have none of the media savvy of a Rupert Murdoch, could end up with a business and public-relations embarrassment if they buy Tribune. 

The George W. Bush Presidential Library opens tomorrow, complete with a Decision Points theater (to see if you’re a better decider) and an exhibition full of chads. Unlike Bill Clinton, Dubya has spent his post-presidency in repose, avoiding the press and attending Texas Rangers playoff games. Is there anything a Bush library can tell us that we don’t already know? And will Bush’s dude-ish post-presidency change the way we think about him?
If Bush’s post-presidency paintings are on display, I’ll grab the very next plane to Dallas. More seriously, American amnesia being what it is, we should perhaps not be surprised that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed that Bush now has the same approval rating of Obama (47 percent), up from 33 percent when he left office. Each additional photograph of the former president with his adorable new granddaughter could add a point. And the Bush library, like all hagiographical presidential libraries, will try to sweeten his presidency’s image further: It’s not for nothing that his administration’s axis of evil (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rove) has been downsized to cameo status in the exhibits. But the actual, long-term historical status of the Bush presidency remains a work in progress. Events still to come in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran will have more to say about his legacy than any interactive displays at his library. Even this week, for all the right’s efforts to portray Boston as an Obama intelligence failure, the news was haunted by the verifiable catastrophic intelligence failure that took place on Bush’s watch during that summer of 2001.

Frank Rich: The GOP Goes Benghazi on Boston