The week after winning election to his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Nevada Republican Joe Heck’s star looked on the rise. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, the hitherto mostly obscure Heck was sought out by, or put forth on, national cable networks to offer opinions on the Benghazi attacks.
It didn’t go well.
Heck went on CNN and dutifully parroted the sentiment, most often voiced by John McCain, that UN Ambassador Susan Rice had made a grievous error by going on Sunday talk shows in the days after Benghazi with talking points prepared by the intelligence community that subsequently proved incorrect.
Soledad O’Brien asked Heck how Rice’s performance differed from that of Condoleeza Rice, who as national security adviser during the run-up to the Iraq War went on Sunday shows to warn the nation that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed a mortal threat to Americans.
Eager to defend and perpetuate the Republican meme that the Obama administration had been engaging in some politically motivated cover-up, Heck might have answered that there was very little difference. Indeed, Heck might have said, the Obama administration had learned nothing from the failures of the Bush administration.
Conversely, had Heck been motivated by a sincere desire for the truth (he wasn’t), he could have explained the very obvious and stark difference between the behavior of the two Rices. Susan Rice went on TV five days after the Benghazi attacks and related information that had been provided to her by the intelligence community and that in hindsight was inaccurate (that the attacks might have been spurred by a YouTube video). However — and this point is routinely ignored by Republicans — Rice added that there were a lot of things the intelligence community did not yet know. In the meantime, the Obama administration reacted to the attacks with prudence, and resisted the temptation, all too common since 9-11, to freak out.
Like Susan Rice, Condoleeza Rice went on TV with talking points prepared by the intelligence community, information that was also shrouded in uncertainty (the bulk of pre-war intel on WMD had been provided by “Curveball,” an Iraqi defector whose credibility had already been challenged by German and British intelligence agencies). But instead of warning that the intelligence was uncertain and urging a prudent, cautious course, Rice was primed with the Bush administration’s customary reckless arrogance and bloodthirsty obsession with blowing up Arabs. If we didn’t take out Iraqi WMD, Rice warned, we’d find the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud. In other words, Susan Rice with the Obama administration was attempting to explain what had happened in a volatile and frequently misunderstood part of the world. Condoleeza Rice was helping the Bush administration launch an act of military aggression that was not only foolish, but needless.
Heck obviously wasn’t going to say any of that on CNN. So what did he say? Nothing coherent, and something about how Condoleeza Rice was familiar with the intelligence but Susan Rice wasn’t. “You’ve totally lost me,” responded a dumbfounded O’Brien. New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who was on the set with O’Brien, chimed in that if anything, Heck was in fact arguing that what Condoleeza Rice had done was much worse than what Susan Rice had done. Heck’s responses were literally nonsense, and after repeatedly attempting to get Heck to say something that was remotely connected to logic, O’Brien mercifully ended the interview. Heck was almost immediately mocked on Huffington Post, Americablog and other online political sites for being “grilled” and “destroyed” by O’Brien.
Later that day, Heck went to the main stage of the right-wing entertainment complex, Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. Hannity is sincerely passionate, not about the country, but about his own fortune. He had been (still is) relentlessly flogging the Benghazi incident and suggesting that Obama’s handling of the issue might be an impeachable offense, because impeachment would be great for Hannity’s ratings. Goaded on by the carnival barker, Heck invoked Watergate-era nomenclature and said “we need to know what [Obama] knew and when he knew it.” As I said on TV here in Nevada the next day, impeaching Obama would be a GOP high-speed rail to political oblivion, and if Heck wants to go there, all aboard.
A few hours after his bizarre debut on the national cable stage, Heck realized that he had gotten out over the tips of his skis. He changed his message completely in an interview with the Sun, telling the paper that too much attention was being paid to how the Obama administration handled the release of information after Benghazi, and that it was time instead to focus on embassy security and other factors prior to the attack to assure it doesn’t happen again.
Also the day after Heck’s brush with stardom, 97 House Republicans signed a letter to Obama declaring their opposition to Susan Rice as a replacement for Hillary Clinton at the State Department. They said Rice “either willingly or incompetently misled the public on the Benghazi matter,” which is effectively the same line Heck had been using on CNN and Fox a day prior.
But Heck’s signature wasn’t on the letter. Evidently he realized that given his big shot at cable TV fame, he had not presented himself as a ready-for-prime-time player, but rather as an excitable man stomping on a flaming paper bag of poo.
Heck may get another opportunity to emerge from obscurity. But for now, he has quietly skulked a retreat to his rightful place on the back bench.
HUGH JACKSON blogs at The Las Vegas Gleaner (lasvegasgleaner.com) and contributes to KSNV Channel 3.