Rep. Howard Coble was fuming. “I’m trying my darnedest to keep my composure,” he said during the Waco hearings.
An angry acquaintance had approached the North Carolina congressman and said, “I’m getting tired of you Republicans … trying to bash law enforcement.”
An exasperated Coble took offense. “As my grandmother used to say, that made my coffee taste real bad,” he said.
Meanwhile, Treasury Department agents in Waco “were ambushed. They were killed. And yet the Republicans want to say they did something wrong,” said Cardiss Collins, the Illinois Democrat more inclined to defend civil liberties than law enforcers accused of excessive force.
As congressional hearings on the 1993 raid and subsequent siege in Waco, Texas, begin their third week on Monday, Republicans find themselves trying to convince the public they’re not really anti-law enforcement.
That isn’t an argument they’ve often had to make.
Democrats, meanwhile, sit across the aisle, staunchly defending police tactics even when witnesses say federal agents acted too aggressively or abridged civil liberties.
The apparent role reversals strike some hearing witnesses as a little odd.
Gerald Goldstein, for example, noted that Republicans called him to testify about problems with the search warrant used in the Waco case.
These were among the same congressmen, he said, who were pushing House Bill 666, which would allow police to use evidence from searches conducted without any warrants at all, if they demonstrate “good faith.”
That irony didn’t escape Goldstein, who is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
He testified that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms obtained the warrant to search for guns at the Branch Davidians’ Waco compound by using “irrelevant, highly inflammatory material.”
Later, Goldstein used the hearing to rant about current Republican proposals like House Bill 666, which he said would lead to even further police abuses. “They’ll never call me again,” he lamented at the end.
“These are the same people who sponsor bills to strip the teeth out of the Fourth Amendment (which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure),” said Goldstein. “I’m not the hypocrite here.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are defending law enforcement, praising the virtues of brave cops while downplaying any overzealous tactics that may have led to the Waco tragedy, which ended in the deaths of four ATF agents and some 80 Branch Davidians.
They are the same Democrats who have fought recent attempts to broaden police powers, including on searches and seizures, albeit unsuccessfully so far.
But while outsiders noted the role reversal, politicians themselves generally said they saw nothing unusual.
“It’s perfectly understandable. The politics of the situation are inescapable,” said Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde.
After all, the Waco disaster occurred when President Clinton was in office. Therefore, “the Democrats are going to circle the wagons, not because of ideology, but because they were in power during the events,” he said.
The Republicans, who weren’t in power, can thus go on the attack.
The unaccustomed may be a little confused. But as a veteran politician, Hyde concluded, “It isn’t unusual. It isn’t even ironic. It’s quite natural.”