In 1994, Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton fired bullets at what he would later describe as a “headlike object” in his backyard — whether it was a melon or a pumpkin has been lost to history — in an attempt to prove that White House aide Vincent Foster had not committed suicide but was murdered. At the time, Burton believed President Bill Clinton was responsible for his death.
Burton went on to become the chairman of the House Oversight Committee and would be remembered for aggressively — and sometimes unethically — probing the tiniest details of Clinton’s presidency. The committee sent out more than 1,000 subpoenas to Democratic officials for various investigations on Burton’s watch, including one that delved into the White House Christmas-card list. The strong-armed tactics and stunts defined Burton’s tenure as a top cop in Congress, but Republicans were regularly accused of overreaching.
Today, Republicans organizing the new select committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, are looking to their own party’s colorful history of presidential investigative hearings for guidance. This includes, most importantly, what not to do. House Speaker John Boehner this week tapped Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor and Republican from South Carolina, to lead the select committee, and insists it won’t become “a circus.”
But with Democrats charging that new Benghazi hearings will amount to little more than political theater — Democratic Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Wednesday it was “nothing more than a political ploy” — Republicans are mindful about trying to avoid the kind of theatrics Congress witnessed in the late 1990s.
“If you’re shooting a watermelon, you’re probably going too far,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who cut his teeth in Congress as a Clinton-era investigator, told Yahoo News. “I don’t think [Trey Gowdy’s] going to have a demonstration in his backyard about how Benghazi happened.”
Controversy over White House messaging in the wake of the Benghazi attack re-erupted at the end of April after Judicial Watch succeeded in obtaining a previously undisclosed email from Sept. 14, 2012, written by National Security Council communications adviser Ben Rhodes. The existence of the email — made public under the Freedom of Information Act and offering guidance to administration officials about how they should characterize the attacks — has raised the possibility that additional documents may yet be forthcoming if Congress presses for them.
When reached for comment about the new select committee, Burton, who retired from Congress last year, declined to offer guidance for Gowdy.
“He’ll do a good job without my advice,” Burton told Yahoo News. Burton added that he wasn’t interested in discussing his own historic tactics and strategies. “I really don’t think I ought to go back and rehash all of that,” he said. “I don’t think it will be beneficial for me to go into all that again.”
Graham, however, was glad to offer wisdom.
“If you’re going to take on White Houses you better have a thick skin,” Graham, a dogged critic of Obama’s handling of Benghazi and a member of the Judiciary Committee team that brought the case for impeachment of Clinton in 1998, said. “What I would do is get a good press shop. Somebody who can carry the message, that’s trained in how to handle crisis management in terms of media.”
He added: “I would pick professional investigators that are seen by people in the legal community as really competent and capable. … I would make sure they have some Democratic connections as well as Republican connections."
Gowdy himself said he intends to take great pains to lend credibility to the committee.
“I care very much about the process,” Gowdy told Yahoo News Wednesday after a House Republican conference meeting on Capitol Hill. “I want people to respect the process. You are welcome to draw different conclusions, but I don’t want there to be any ambiguity about whether the process was fair and complete. It’s my responsibility to convince you that the process was fair.”
Democrats are worried that the proceedings won’t be carried out fairly, and some have even called on party leadership to boycott the hearings altogether.
Critics of the Republican’s move to create a select committee point to the fact that four bipartisan congressional committees have already launched their own Benghazi investigations and that the House Oversight Committee still has an inquiry open on the subject. In January, the Senate Committee on Intelligence released a report on the attacks — signed off by both Republicans and Democrats on the panel — that concluded that the attacks were “preventable.”
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer sent a letter to Boehner requesting there be an equal number of Democrats on the panel as Republicans. The letter called for rules mandating that there be bipartisan agreement to approve subpoenas and protocols for the release of documents related to the investigation.
Republicans are all but ignoring the Democrats’ request, with plans to appoint seven of their own to the panel and just five Democrats. As justification for the move, they point to Pelosi’s decision, when she was speaker in 2007, not to appoint an equal number of Republicans and Democrats to a select committee on climate change. They also note that with the exception of the Ethics Committee, seats on congressional panels are doled out based on the partisan makeup of the chamber.
“That’s a red herring. I don’t think it’s important at all” to have an equal number from each party, Gowdy said. “I just want it to be fair.”
Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attack, was asked about the issue during an appearance at the Ford Foundation on Tuesday. She said she was “absolutely” satisfied with the information she had about Benghazi and greeted the new Republican push with the verbal equivalent of a shrug.
“Of course, there are a lot of reasons why, despite all of the hearings, all of the information that’s been provided, some choose not to be satisfied and choose to continue to move forward,” Clinton said. “That’s their choice, and I do not believe there is any reason for it to continue in this way. But they get to call the shots in the Congress.”
House Republicans plan to vote on creating the joint committee later this week.
Meanwhile, it’s already proving hard for Republicans to keep the party on message. The National Republican Congressional Committee has begun fundraising around the Benghazi investigation, fueling Democratic criticism that the committee is being established for political purposes. Gowdy denounced the NRCC’s move and is urging Republicans not to raise money off the investigations.
“This is all about getting to the truth. It's not going to be a sideshow,” Boehner insisted Wednesday morning. “It's not going to be a circus. This is a serious investigation.”