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Forlorn GOP turns to Benghazi 

If you are a beltway Republican, no antidote for the blues matches extended congressional hearings on a real or imagined national horror — that is, if it might heap dishonor on a Democratic administration. If Hillary Clinton will be the dishonoree, so much the better.

The news lately could hardly be more disheartening: Barack Obama's easy re-election, Democratic congressional gains, stratospheric polling for Hillary Clinton in 2016, more horrible polls for congressional Republicans, a rapidly shrinking budget deficit, a 15,000 Dow and improving economic numbers across the board.

So what to do but revive the Benghazi hearings. Congressional inquiries last fall on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three others, did not seem to faze Obama or Secretary Clinton, who soon left the State Department to a chorus of hosannas. The only thing to do is rake the embers and memories of the tragedy once more and perhaps bare a bureaucratic misstep that could silence the Hillary choir or cripple the president in the coming new budget war.

It worked once to perfection, for a while. Some will remember the cascade of hearings on the little Whitewater development in Marion County, undertaken after Republicans won Congress in the 1994 elections. The committees held the nation's attention for more than three years with shocking hints of misdeeds by Arkansans. The country got to know and eventually to despise the overbearing Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, chairman of the Banking Committee, and Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who made Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn look seemly.

But the Benghazi hearings represent a different kind of low, the exploitation of a national tragedy for political advantage. Both parties have usually, though not always, avoided that ghoulish business.

Every tragedy, whether cataclysmic ones like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 or the thousands of smaller deadly events in the theaters of war or foreign relations, involves human failure, misjudgment or some overlooked opportunity that might have saved the day. Until Benghazi, there were no attempted political crucifixions.

Ronald Reagan's worst saga occurred across 12 months in his first term. Under the protection of the Israeli military, a right-wing Lebanese militia entered two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and for three days raped, killed and dismembered 800 Palestinian men, women and children, all civilians. Israeli flares illuminated the camps for the murderers. Ariel Sharon hornswoggled Reagan's emissary, who tried lamely to persuade him not to do it, so America absorbed part of the blame in the eyes of a shocked civilization and an inflamed Arab world. The event has tortured relationships in the region ever since.

As part of an agreement to protect the Palestinians in the Beirut camps from more murders, Reagan deployed Marines to Lebanon to supervise the departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization for other countries. On Oct. 23, 1983, in retaliation for the perceived U.S. role in the slaughter of the refugees, a suicide terrorist rolled a TNT-laden truck into the Marine headquarters at the Beirut airport and blew it up, killing 241 servicemen. Reagan declared that the U.S. would not be driven out. But the bungling was not over. Six weeks later, Reagan ordered a badly planned retaliatory attack on Syrian antiaircraft batteries around Beirut. Syria suffered little damage but the U.S. lost aircraft, men and prestige. A deeply disillusioned Reagan withdrew the Marines.

Then there were the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, which killed not four but nearly 3,000. The Republican-controlled Congress conducted gentle hearings, long delayed, to discover how it could have happened. There was none of the ferocity of the Benghazi hearings. Congress handed the heavy lifting to a bipartisan commission, which got the administration to give it only one of the president's daily security briefings, the Aug. 6 memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." We would learn a dozen years later that there were other briefs warning Bush of attacks and the use of airplanes. But the neocons who had taken over, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, insisted that the warnings about Al Qaeda attacks on America were a ruse to divert attention from the real enemy, Iraq.

So George Bush screwed up — or maybe he screwed up. The Congress, and certainly not his party, did not want to place the terrible burden of that holocaust on the shoulders of even an inept president. Times have changed.

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