If the truth can set you free, it also can land you in some trouble. Just ask U.S. Rep. Joe Barton or Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Both are in the news for recently expressed views to which they are thoroughly entitled but which have nonetheless landed them in varying degrees of hot water.
And while both stories involve justifiable criticism of the White House, that’s where the similarities end. A military commander realizing that this administration is clueless about the war should not be a stunning surprise. What is surprising is a general careless enough to allow his comments and those of senior staff to hit the ears of a reporter from Rolling Stone, which has not supported America at war for one moment of its 43 years of publication.
Among a general’s many responsibilities is making sure his complaints do not reach public view. Failing to do this is a dismissible offense, no matter what I might think of McChrystal’s service otherwise.
I am far more critical of President Barack Obama than McChrystal, who actually and mysteriously voted for him. But changes in war policy are properly made by voters changing administrations, not by loose-lipped generals who cannot keep their opinions private.
In contrast, Barton’s moment of White House critique was in exactly the right setting, a congressional hearing regarding the seemingly insoluble gulf oil spill.
“I’m speaking now totally for myself,” he began, detailing his proper revulsion for a $20 billion relief fund squeezed from BP in a room where a litigious attorney general stood with the lawsuit sword ready to be drawn at any moment of insufficient acquiescence.
Barton’s use of the term “shakedown” was wholly appropriate. His remarks were proceeding superbly, filled with justifiable distaste for the sidestepping of the usual judicial process by which misbehaving companies are usually held accountable.
But then came the moment Barton wishes he could have back: “I apologize.”
No matter the merit of his argument to that point, there is a long list of people who did not want to hear a U.S. congressman apologize to BP’s Tony Hayward.
While they were the first to pounce, Democrats probably were thrilled to hear it, since it turned into a political ad over the weekend. Among Republicans, those representing besieged Gulf Coast districts can be understood for bristling.
Less explicable is the House Republican leadership, which reacted as if Barton had suggested a congressional medal for Hayward. If Democrats want to misrepresent Barton’s remarks as “support” for BP and a defense against its misdeeds, they can – and did.
But for House Minority Leader John Boehner, Minority Whip Eric Cantor and others to pile on is at the very least disconcerting. Remove the few seconds of apology, and Barton’s comments are exactly what the Republican stance should be – that BP is accountable and has many questions to answer, but that a government strong-arm is not the route to proper accountability.
If Barton is guilty of a momentary lapse in phraseology, these so-called party leaders are guilty of something far more troubling – playing into the Democrats’ narrative, rather than contesting it.
There is something obscene about Rahm Emanuel, or anyone from this administration, scolding the GOP for insensitivity to the plight of gulf fishermen. How is that White House response going as the spill enters its third month?
Joe Barton spoke honestly about this White House, but one unfortunate word choice swallowed his message. Stanley McChrystal spoke honestly about this White House, but not one word of it should have reached the public.
If honesty is the best policy, I suggest two corollaries: be aware of when honesty is best kept private, and when public honesty is called for, word choice means everything.
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