In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe.
They pretended a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room, draping white linens over folding tables to make them look like witness tables and bringing in cardboard name tags and extra flags to make the whole thing look official.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) banged a large wooden gavel and got the other lawmakers to call him "Mr. Chairman." He liked that so much that he started calling himself "the chairman" and spouted other chairmanly phrases, such as "unanimous consent" and "without objection so ordered." The dress-up game looked realistic enough on C-SPAN, so two dozen more Democrats came downstairs to play along.
The session was a mock impeachment inquiry over the Iraq war. As luck would have it, all four of the witnesses agreed that President Bush lied to the nation and was guilty of high crimes -- and that a British memo on "fixed" intelligence that surfaced last month was the smoking gun equivalent to the Watergate tapes. Conyers was having so much fun that he ignored aides' entreaties to end the session.
"At the next hearing," he told his colleagues, "we could use a little subpoena power." That brought the house down.
As Conyers and his hearty band of playmates know, subpoena power and other perks of a real committee are but a fantasy unless Democrats can regain the majority in the House. But that's only one of the obstacles they're up against as they try to convince America that the "Downing Street Memo" is important.
A search of the congressional record yesterday found that of the 535 members of Congress, only one -- Conyers -- had mentioned the memo on the floor of either chamber. House Democratic leaders did not join in Conyers's session, and Senate Democrats, who have the power to hold such events in real committee rooms, have not troubled themselves.
The hearing was only nominally about the Downing Street Memo and its assertion that in the summer of 2002 Bush was already determined to go to war and was making the intelligence fit his case. Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador whose wife was outed as a CIA operative, barely mentioned the memo in his opening statement. Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq, said the memo "only confirms what I already suspected."
No matter: The lawmakers and the witnesses saw this as a chance to rally against the war. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) proclaimed it "one of the biggest scandals in the history of this country." Conyers said the memos "establish a prima facie case of going to war under false pretenses." Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) concluded that "the time has come to get out" of Iraq.
The session took an awkward turn when witness Ray McGovern, a former intelligence analyst, declared that the United States went to war in Iraq for oil, Israel and military bases craved by administration "neocons" so "the United States and Israel could dominate that part of the world." He said that Israel should not be considered an ally and that Bush was doing the bidding of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"Israel is not allowed to be brought up in polite conversation," McGovern said. "The last time I did this, the previous director of Central Intelligence called me anti-Semitic."
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who prompted the question by wondering whether the true war motive was Iraq's threat to Israel, thanked McGovern for his "candid answer."
At Democratic headquarters, where an overflow crowd watched the hearing on television, activists handed out documents repeating two accusations -- that an Israeli company had warning of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and that there was an "insider trading scam" on 9/11 -- that previously has been used to suggest Israel was behind the attacks.
The event organizer, Democrats.com, distributed stickers saying "Bush lied/100,000 people died." One man's T-shirt proclaimed, "Whether you like Bush or not, he's still an incompetent liar," while a large poster of Uncle Sam announced: "Got kids? I want yours for cannon fodder."
Conyers's firm hand on the gavel could not prevent something of a free-for-all; at one point, a former State Department worker rose from the audience to propose criminal charges against Bush officials. Early in the hearing, somebody accidentally turned off the lights; later, a witness knocked down a flag. Matters were even worse at Democratic headquarters, where the C-SPAN feed ended after just an hour, causing the activists to groan and one to shout "Conspiracy!"
The glitches and the antiwar theatrics proved something of a distraction from the message the organizers aimed to deliver: that for the Bush White House, as lawyer John C. Bonifaz put it, the British memo is "the equivalent to the revelation that there was a taping system in the Nixon White House."
Of course, Democrats controlled the real committees back then -- though Conyers was not deterred. "We have a lot of work to do as a result of this first panel," he told his colleagues. " 'Tis the beginning of our work."