July 24, 1995 in Nation/World

D.C. Deep Into Blood Sport Of Congressional Hearings

Steve Goldstein Philadelphia Inquirer
 

Concluding her searing testimony about cult leader and sexual predator David Koresh, 14-year-old Kiri Jewell was asked by a member of Congress what she thinks is the importance of the hearings under way on the Waco tragedy.

“I don’t think it’s right that people are getting things out of this that they shouldn’t be,” the teenager said in halting tones last week. “People are hurting, and they need to know the truth. This is my truth.”

In simple but stark fashion, Jewell captured the essence of this summer’s blood sport in Washington. Hearings on complex events with the journalistic shorthand of Waco, Whitewater, Ruby Ridge and Ocoee - site of the infamous “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup” in eastern Tennessee - threaten to drown the legislative season in partisan gamesmanship.

The pumped-up Republican majority is primed to embarrass the Clinton administration.

The beleaguered Democrats are looking for weak links in the Republican attack or, failing that, a way to paint the GOP offensive as overkill and stir public outrage over what they say is wasted time and resources.

The fire of the Oklahoma City bombing has ignited fresh hunts for smoking guns everywhere: in the militia movement, the Christian right, Vincent Foster’s briefcase, the ashes of the Branch Davidian compound, the files of the National Rifle Association and the conduct of federal law enforcement agents.

Washington has become a kind of political Sarajevo as denizens dash around town hunched over, hoping to avoid sniping from traditional enemies and “friendly fire” from temporary ones.

Treasury Undersecretary Ronald K. Noble is in the middle of things.

“Was there ever a time when congressional hearings were just fact-finding?” asked Noble, whose enforcement responsibilities have thrust him into the maelstrom of the Waco, Oklahoma City and “roundup” investigations.

“Does everything have to be hyperbole or political point-scoring? It just seems wasteful of time, talent and intellect.

“It’s depressing,” he said.

Depressing to be in a Democratic administration where Prozac, not Pepsi, defines the generation.

The summer’s repertoire of hear ins includes the following:

The Senate, followed by the House, has held hearings on the militia movement.

On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee probed the May party at Ocoee, in which white law enforcement officers attended a gathering at which racist paraphernalia allegedly was displayed and sold.

The Senate’s Whitewater hearings may run until year’s end.

House hearings on Waco are scheduled for at least five more days.

“Nobody can say I’m engaging in a witch hunt,” declared Rep. Bill Zeliff, R.-N.H., co-chairman of the Waco hearings. “With all the honesty and integrity in my body, I’m trying to get to the bottom of this.”

Not to be outdone in getting to the bottom of things, Senate Republicans have scheduled their own hearings for Sept. 6 on Waco and the 1992 FBI confrontation with white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. There, a federal agent was slain, and FBI sharpshooters then killed Weaver’s wife and one son.

In general, Republican targets include all Clintonites and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Meanwhile, the Democrats are taking aim at the National Rifle Association and paramilitary groups.

Common themes run through the subjects of the investigations, and much of the anxiety and the rush to the hearing room can be traced to November’s Republican blowout. Both parties are seeking to determine the real desires of the angry white male voter.

For many Americans, according to<x polls, Whitewater is just white noise. Waco, on the other hand, is the event that speaks to fears of government repression of religion, personal freedom and the right to bear arms.

Carol Moore of the Washingtoni-based Committee for Waco Justice is annoyed that the Whitewater hearings are running concurrently with those on Waco.

“It wasn’t Whitewater that led to a bombing in Oklahoma City,” she said. “It wasn’t Whitewater that led to the formation of militias all around the country.”

Both parties have invoked the Constitution as the justification of their probing, citing the need for “congressional oversight” of law enforcement activities.

The more significant question is whether the end justifies the means. Will Americans be enlightened and encouraged when the smoke clears?

There is much good in a public airing, everyone seems to agree.

The only matter in dispute is whether the stage is so big, the spotlight so inviting, that the players feel a need to shout their lines and enlarge their roles - and the audience will go home with a headache.

Or, in Kiri Jewell’s words, getting things out of this that they shouldn’t be.


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