You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off.
— George and Ira Gershwin
Here’s how unreal the Great Benghazi Scandal had already grown last year. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler devoted an entire May 2013 column to the scholastic question of whether President Obama’s calling the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya an “act of terror” was the same as calling it an “act of terrorism,” as he’d recently claimed.
Kessler pondered the deep semantic differences between the two phrases before awarding Obama a full four “Pinochios,” signifying a “whopper.” Seriously. That’s the big cover-up House Republicans pretend they’re outraged about.
Obama’s exact words, from the White House Rose Garden on the day after the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his security team:
“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”
So who was Obama trying to deceive? People who hadn’t seen the smoking ruins on TV? And about what? Kessler doesn’t say. Only that the two phrases don’t signify precisely the same thing — a distinction without a difference in any realistic political context.
It will be recalled that GOP nominee Mitt Romney executed one of the clumsiest pratfalls in presidential debate history for mistakenly challenging Obama on this exact point. Had the president, or had he not, described the Benghazi disaster as an “act of terror”?
Obama coolly urged his rival to consult the transcript. In fact, he’d used the phrase several times. Had the Washington political press not had so much invested in a “cliffhanger” election narrative, Romney’s blunder would have been compared to President Gerald Ford’s denying Soviet influence in Poland during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter.
But then this is the great mystery confronting non-initiates in the great GOP Benghazi cult. What on earth are these people going on about? That if Obama had said “act of terrorism” instead of “act of terror,” Americans would have punished his failure to eliminate jihadists from the face of the earth by turning to Mitt “47 percent” Romney?
That everything would be different if U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had cast aside White House “talking points” about inflammatory videos on the Sunday political chat shows and candidly confessed that “whether they were al-Qaida affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al-Qaida itself … is one of the things we’ll have to determine”?
Because those were Rice’s exact words, block copied from the transcript of CBS’s Sept. 16, 2012 “Face the Nation” broadcast in response to a direct question from Bob Schieffer about al-Qaida involvement.
Everybody now pretends she named no terrorist groups for the sake of keeping the make-believe scandal alive.
It follows that, contrary to everything you hear from partisan mischief makers and their helpers among the Washington press, the Obama White House has never sought to deny the obvious: that the kinds of religious zealots who bring rocket-propelled grenade launchers to street demonstrations didn’t simply find them lying around in the bazaar.
The original CIA talking points released 11 months ago said pretty much what Ambassador Rice said: that outrage at a crude, American-made video mocking Islam sparked violent protests across much of the Middle East, and that militants took advantage of the resulting chaos for their own bloody purposes. The exact identity of those responsible isn’t yet known.
See, out there in the real world, it doesn’t always have to be either/or. Most often it’s both/and: armed terrorist groups and a provocative video. A Senate intelligence committee report released last January sharply criticized the state department, but also concluded “that the attack was not a highly coordinated plot, but was opportunistic.”
David D. Kirkpatrick’s masterful reporting in the New York Times established that the anti-western Libyan militia Ansar Al-Sharia had long had the consulate under surveillance, although “… anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters … A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him.”
However, a 2012 White House email has recently emerged restating CIA talking points in somewhat different language. So big deal.
They’ll be singing all summer: “Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto.”
Well, you know the rest.
Gene Lyons is a nationally syndicated columnist.