Friday, June 30, 2000

You usually can’t count on a United States senator for much, but you can always count on him to regard himself as more important than the rest of us do.

Arlen Specter worked himself into a foaming lather the other day about whether another of Janet Reno’s task-force chiefs had suggested, as they all have, that she appoint a special prosecutor to look into Al Gore’s “community outreach” at the infamous Buddhist temple.

Al’s outreach, as we all know now, was to reach into the pockets of a few nuns, or wherever it is that a nun carries her cash. Miss Reno nevertheless intends to leave well enough alone, not so much Al’s well enough, but her own. Mr. Specter, having discovered that Miss Reno had once more demonstrated that she is determined to see that where Al (and Bill) are concerned there will indeed be no controlling legal authority, demanded that the attorney general appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to ‘splain herself.

The naive among us expected the senators to get to the bottom of this latest sorry episode in the continuing saga of ethical obliviousness at the Justice Department. But in the event, the senators, particularly the Republican senators who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, fell all over themselves to lead the usual retreat.

It’s not even “realistic” to think she could finish an investigation before November, Sen. Specter told her. “It may be that the only alternative America has at this point in this election is to leave it to the political process,” he said, as if calling the attorney general before his committee was not part of the “political process.” Said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, employing the all-purpose Capitol Hill alibi: “I believe your staff failed you.” That’s what staffs are for, of course, to take the blame when the boss is out to lunch. Piped up Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey: “I do not pretend to be giving advice on how you administer the Justice Department,” he said, giving advice. “But Madam Attorney General, someone has let the department down. I hope you are vigorous in finding out what happened.” (Wink, wink.)

You might wonder, if this was all the senators had to do for five hours, just why they had called Miss Reno up to the Hill in the first place. But soon Sen. Specter was off on an irrelevancy dearer to his heart.

An aide to Al Gore, who as a schoolboy had apparently cut class on the day set aside for learning American history, accused Mr. Specter of “McCarthyite” tactics in leaking the news that Miss Reno’s latest task-force chief had urged her to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Al. This time the senator had a hot flash, inspired not to denounce the miserable state of education that could produce a vice presidential aide with so little knowledge of what “McCarthyism” was, or is but that the aide had accused him of it.

(Note to aide: “McCarthyism” was not about leaking documents. You could look it up. Note to senator: You were there to grill Janet Reno, not to take offense from an uneducated go-fer. You could look that up, too.)

At last look, the senator’s fax machine was red hot with hourly demands for an apology, and the Gore aide was making fresh accusations for each news cycle. Attention was diverted from the debacle at the hands of Miss Reno. What a coincidence.

Taking offense is something senators do well, and lately have done a lot of. Maybe they’re entitled, since taking offense has become a leading American industry, contributing significantly to the nation’s gross national product. Last week it was Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia who was offended, not so much that someone at the nuclear-weapons lab at Los Alamos had been passing out computer drives as party favors, but that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had offended the vanity if not the dignity of the Senate. Mr. Byrd felt irrelevant oratory coming on.

“I find it to be a bit ironic that you found out some things on March 28, I believe,” he told Mr. Richardson. “That was the date you mentioned, March 28?”

Actually, it wasn’t. But the senator had already lifted off and was gaining altitude. “It was a bit ironic that it recalled to my memory something which really has no bearing here. That on March 28 in 193 A.D., Didius Julianus purchased the throne of the Roman Empire at an auction. As I recall, he paid 62 hundred and 50 whatever your coins were called at that time, to each soldier … That was on March 28, 193 A.D. Is it me, perhaps, or is there reason for thinking of that date in light of what you’ve just said?”

Well, no, no reason that anyone could think of. But relevance never stops a United States senator from speaking up about whatever isn’t on his mind. You could look that up, too.

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