GADFLY: Behind Closed Doors 

Sometimes (as in the Senate's three-hour "executive session" on Tuesday), a little secrecy can go a long way.

The hermetic sealing of the Senate chamber  on Tuesday, following the invocation by Majority Leader Harry Reid of a little-used provision of the Senate's rules, may have demonstrated something far greater than the rival parties' capacity for playing “gotcha last;” it also proved that the Senate can accomplish more, in a shorter time, behind closed doors, that it ever seems to be able to in the full glare of the public eye.  Once C-Span, spectators, staffers and other hangers-on were ejected from the Senate chamber, the Senate accomplished in less than three hours what it hasn't been able to accomplish in 18 months---getting one of its recalcitrant committees to honor a promise to finish an investigation into the misuse by the Bush administration of intelligence about WMD's, one which it's been dragging its feet on for all that time. 

 

If there's a lesson here, it may be that sunshine is not the universal disinfectant proponents of open government, freedom of information, and the like actually believe.  It may actually be an occasional repellant. Of course, that's not to sanction the many abuses of the public's right to know perpetrated by the administration of Boris Bush and Natasha Cheney (the latter being the one that brought us the famous “secret energy task force”). But just as we marvel at the mystery of what actually happens to the light in our refrigerators when we close the door, but are never tempted to get in and close the door behind us to find out, it was far better that we saw the light that emerged after the Senate's doors were re-opened.  Which is not to say that I would have minded being the proverbial fly on the wall during those roughly three hours.

 

For anyone like me, who's fascinated by C-Span's coverage of Congressional goings-on (I first got hooked during the Bert Lance hearings---yes, that makes me a dinosaur, but how many people who still have all their teeth remember the cartoon characters Boris and Natasha, for that matter?), the machinations of the gang of aging white men who comprise the U.S. Senate are ten times  better than any episode of “Bored Housewives” (or whatever the name of that insipid show is).  The only problem is, the cameras, I'm afraid, sometimes get in the way of our deliberative bodies' real work---getting something meaningful done.  So, even though it will rank up there in the pantheon of all-time television moments, the announcement by Senator Frist that he could diagnose a person's neurological condition just by looking at a video of them , that moment, and all the histrionics accompanying the shameful meddling by the Senate in the Terry Schiavo tragedy, graphically demonstrated how jockeying for public eyeball position distracted senators from doing the country's business.  I'm beginning to think C-Span should title its coverage of what goes on on the floor of the Senate as “The Posturing and Bickering Shows.”

 

In a way, I'm sorry the country didn't get to see, in real time, the miraculous moment when the Democrats emerged from their three-year-long persistent vegetative state caused by the trauma they inflicted on themselves in voting to give the President the authority to wage war in Iraq.  Benefiting from an apparent reverse orchiectomy (with apologies to my hero, Lance Armstrong), the Democrats finally stood up to the evasion and phony lip service they've been subjected to for lo these many months.  Enough of the bogus “my good friend, Senator So-and-so,” and “the Honorable Gentleman/Gentlelady” crap, a charade we'd already seen viciously outed in the three-word epithet uttered by Dick Cheney (the Senate's “president”) to Patrick Leahy in the cloakroom of that august body. 

 

Any further doubt we had about the collegiality of the band of Senate brothers was firmly resolved when, in a speech responding to the apparently outlandish suggestion by Senator Tom Coburn that New Orleans could use use $250 million dollars to rebuild a portion of its destroyed interstate highway more than the 50 residents of a remote Alaskan island could use it to build a bridge to their outpost they obviously never needed or wanted, Senator Ted Stevens, in what the Washington Post characterized as a “hissy fit”, engaged in the ultimate act of gentility by threatening to resign from the Senate and be taken out on a stretcher (how did they resist that temptation?). Then, with veins popping and head trembling, he bellowed his response to Coburn's suggestion: “NO”.  And, of course, he was overwhelmingly supported by the majority of his fellow porkmeisters. So much for the dignity of the Senate.

 

At a time when virtually everything from gory surgical procedures to tearful testimony in murder trials can be viewed on one TV channel or another, and when broadcasting such other spellbinding events as Supreme Court arguments (yawn!) to the administration of lethal injections to condemned murderers (yikes!) is being debated, it may be time to take a step back, and even to see whether we can put back some of the milk that's been spilled from the TV bottle. It's likely to remain easier to consume there.

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