The General Does Battle With . . . a Broken Mike

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The best historical analogue for Gen. David Petraeus's appearance before Congress yesterday might be found in the days of the Roman Republic.

Then, returning generals wearing laurel wreaths and purple robes and riding in chariots were greeted at the city gate by senators and led through a "Triumph" ceremony that included trumpeters and the slaying of white bulls.

There were no animal sacrifices in the Cannon Caucus Room yesterday, but Petraeus -- even the name is a felicitous echo of the Latin "patronus" (protector) -- enjoyed the modern equivalent: Taking his place on a raised platform in the middle of the room, the general, with four stars on each shoulder and a chest full of ribbons, was surrounded by more than 50 cameras and lawmakers lining up to pay respects.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led his wife through the throng to meet the great man. "What a pleasure! What a pleasure!" Lantos called out.

The lawmakers used their allotted questioning time to heap linguistic laurels on the visiting general, and, to a lesser extent, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker: "America's finest. . . . Our nation's most capable. . . . The capability, the integrity, the intelligence and the wisdom. . . . Nothing but admiration."

And that was from the Democrats.

With even the antiwar members of Congress fearful that criticism of Petraeus would be seen as criticism of the troops, the main adversity the general faced yesterday was of the technical variety.

When the long-anticipated moment finally arrived -- Petraeus giving the testimony that would shape the future of the Iraq war -- the commanding general in Iraq discovered that his microphone was dead.

"We will have to ask you to stand a bit closer to the microphone," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Still nothing. "Would somebody please fix the microphone?" the chairman asked. Nobody could. "Is there any way to trade microphones from the front row?" Nope: Those were dead, too.

Alas for the chairman, his own microphone worked too well. While technicians scrambled to fix the audio problem, the 75-year-old Skelton could be heard on C-SPAN muttering vulgarities.

For months, Petraeus's report to Congress had been billed as the moment that could change the direction of the Iraq war. And so, they turned on the chandeliers in the Cannon Caucus Room and brought in extra flags. They draped blue cloths over folding card tables so 100 members of Congress -- nearly a quarter of the House -- could face Petraeus. An hour before the big show, the star witness took what he called a "recon" walk through the chamber.

The long-anticipated moment never came, however, as even many of the antiwar Democrats on the panel acknowledged that the military "surge" Petraeus has led in Iraq has been a tactical success.

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