Commentary Magazine


What Happened?

If you are flummoxed and exhausted by the interrogation memo controversy, you are not alone. We started last Sunday with Rahm Emanuel firmly shutting the door to prosecution of former Bush officials. Then the memos were released, the Left began to holler, the president went to Langely, and the door was opened in a rambling presidential press availability. For a couple of days the controversy raged. It became apparent that to go through the door would be a national catastrophe and the end of any congressional comity for a very long time. Oh, and then Nancy Pelosi got caught in the web of “did she or did she not know what was going on?” On Thursday night the door was slammed shut. The president is very much opposed to a witch hunt, we are informed.

There are two explanations for what happened. One is that the president, without teleprompter and script, messed up — big time — when he blathered on at the press conference with the King of Jordan about the potential for show trials. He was trying to sound sophisticated or thoughtful and instead unleashed the furies. It was a blunder of rather startling proportions.

The other theory is that he changed his mind twice. After shutting the door on Monday he shifted after his CIA visit, trying to mollify the netroot base. He sounded quite sympathetic to the idea of investigations and prosecutions. But when it began to spin out of control he reversed course again and said we’ve had enough. He, in this scenario, is frightfully indecisive and guided by purely political considerations.

We are unlikely to know which it is, but neither paints an impressive picture of our president. Whatever his mindset, the president threw the entire government, media, political class, and intelligence community into a tizzy. He came off looking confused and utterly unpresidential. Say what you will about George W. Bush, but he was a decider. There was rarely any question as to what he was proposing.

And where do we go now? Nancy Pelosi seems determined to push forward with her show trial – unless convinced by yesterday’s events that the whole thing might turn out to be unpleasant for her personally (not to mention some other key Democrats). The Senate is less inclined to follow suit. So we’ll see if the genie can be put back in the bottle, if Eric Holder re-opens the door yet again and what, if anything, we have learned, not only about interrogation techniques, but about this president.

It has been the low point of his 100 Days — far more troubling than glad-handing Hugo Chavez or spending our grandchildren’s money. It raises questions about his competency and judgment, both of which in a time of war and economic crisis are essential to the country’s safety and well being. Let us hope it was an aberration never to be repeated.