Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok arrives to testify before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees — a hearing that showed how little Congress understands romance or sex. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Columnist

Jerry Nadler appeared to have the best of intentions when he begged his congressional colleagues to tiptoe around Peter Strzok’s mortifying extramarital affair.

“You have to treat him and any witness before this committee with respect,” the New York Democrat warned at the beginning of Thursday’s crud-pit of a congressional hearing. “Questions like ‘Do you love Lisa Page?’ are not relevant.”

Presumably, this was an attempt to bring dignity to the House Oversight Committee inquiry into whether the FBI employees conspired to keep Donald Trump from the presidency. But — of course questions like that are relevant. The relationship is relevant; it was the reason for the texts propelling the whole hearing. Strzok and Page were texting because they were clandestinely dating, because that is how clandestinely dating people act.

Half the reason this hearing looked as bonkers as it did is because members of Congress were attempting to use a traditional committee hearing format to make sense of a love affair — an entanglement that is inherently strange, personal and melodramatic.

“Maybe you’re meant to protect the country from that menace,” we learned that Page once wrote to Strzok.

Strzok responded, “I can protect the country at many levels.”

There’s bravado there. Cheeky, clumsy innuendo. Classic male/female gendered role-play: she’s the damsel afraid of the menace. He’s the strong man who can keep her safe. It’s the two of them against the world.

The exchange may well come across like two people trying to torpedo a presidential candidate, but honestly I think it’s just as likely we’d learn, with more text messages, that “the country” is a pet nickname Strzok once gave to Page’s bellybutton.

Or we’d learn at the very least that this is the awkwardness that passes for seduction in the dorkiest Zip codes of the land.

From where did these two send these messages? From all over Virginia, we learned: Fairfax County. Loudoun County. Once from a rural Walmart.

At what hours did these two send messages? All hours. “Mr. Gowdy, as I’ve stated, that text was written late at night,” Strzok explained at one point.

Some members of the committee positioned these details as nefarious. They were horrified, for example, by the fact that Strzok and Page’s conversations would sometimes begin via text until one of them suggested moving to iMessage or private email. The implication was that the two FBI employees needed more secret methods to communicate their planned takedown of Trump.

Isn’t it more likely they just wanted more secret methods to sext?

If a subpoenaed collection of text messages between you and your romantic partner would read like literature — well, congrats. If, however, they’d be a weird blend of work complaints, idiosyncratic flirting, unintelligible butt-texts, and occasional existential panic, then you’re Peter Strzok. Probably the rest of us, too.

The emotional narrative of this relationship deserved a role in the hearing. Not for prurient interests, but for explanatory ones. The most bombastic moment on Thursday arrived via a sanctimonious observation by Rep. Louie Gohmert: “I can’t help but wonder, when I see you looking there with your little smirk,” he said to Strzok, “how many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eyes and lie to her about — ”

And then the Texas Republican was shouted down, mostly by Democrats appalled that Gohmert would so callously weaponize a painful, messy, personal part of someone’s life.

Gohmert looked like a toad, but a part of me wondered whether we’d finally start getting somewhere, unpacking the context behind a series of ill-advised, boneheaded texts.

The rest of the time, the committee acted as if it were trying to understand an imagined mutinous plot between two rogue government employees. (“I want to know what it meant, Agent Sztrok!” demanded Rep. Trey Gowdy.)

Really, it looked like they didn’t understand sex.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.