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.

Republicans, lacking Democrats on the panel with whom to quarrel, instead took aim at the liberal group, which had a full-page ad in the New York Times calling Petraeus "General Betray Us."

"I think it's an outrage," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

A prematurely overwrought Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) added in her opening statement: "I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to publicly denounce the ad." When nobody heeded her recommendation, she later urged colleagues anew.

"Point of order," interrupted Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). "Nobody has to distance themselves from something they weren't associated with."

"Take it easy," replied Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Actually, the left would more credibly be accused of taking it too easy -- on Petraeus. There was no protest visible outside the Cannon Building -- unless you count the man in the devil costume with the sign that read "I've got Petraeus by the soul." A "dog and pony show" promised by MoveOn failed to materialize; when Eve Fairbanks of the New Republic finally tracked down the show, she encountered only a few hounds and the rumor of a person wearing a horse suit.

Part of the antiwar crowd's trouble was that General Betray Us didn't sound like a warmonger. Though trying to punt until March a decision about major troop reductions, he leavened his remarks with soothing phrases such as "I have recommended a drawdown of the surge forces from Iraq" and "Force reductions will continue beyond the pre-surge levels."

The abundant love for the mild general must have irked a dozen or so demonstrators in the back two rows of the chamber. First came a woman from Code Pink, evicted from the room for shouting "War criminal!" Then Ray McGovern, a former intelligence analyst, was removed for hollering, "Swear him in!" After a third heckler interrupted the proceedings, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) requested that Skelton "get them out of here."

"You don't have to lecture me," Skelton snapped. "They'll be gone." But they weren't. Petraeus's opening statement, and subsequent questioning, were interrupted by several more shouts ("That's a lie! . . . Warmongering! . . . We are slaughtering the Iraqi people!"). By late afternoon, a Capitol Police officer brandishing a shotgun was patrolling the line of people waiting for seats in the room.

Of course, the hecklers' disruptions were minor compared with the technical problems. Soon after the microphone failure caused a 15-minute delay, the lights in the room flickered, and several went out. Then came another microphone problem in the first row.

In fact, the only predictable element of the afternoon was the consistency of the praise for Petraeus.

"Thank you for your hard work, your skill and your dedication," Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) said. Twice.

"You are the all-star team," added Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.).

Even those who criticized the Bush administration went out of their way to exempt the general. Lantos argued that the president has no credibility, then quickly added, "This is not a knock on you, General Petraeus." Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said the troop increase has "failed" and accused Petraeus of "cherry picking" before adding, "You are a true patriot."

It was, in all, a welcome befitting a Roman general. Better, even: Petraeus didn't even have to endure, as Roman generals did, the slave holding the crown over his head and whispering in his ear: Sic transit gloria mundi.

All glory is fleeting.

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