Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), left, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D- Md.). (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Opinion writer

When Trey Gowdy got the job to run the House’s new Benghazi select committee, there was good reason to fear bad things.

Gowdy, a former prosecutor, was known for theatrical outbursts in hearings, rank partisanship and a fascination with Benghazi conspiracy theories about talking points, stand-down orders and Hillary Clinton’s culpability.

But when the South Carolina Republican chaired his panel’s first public hearing Wednesday, Gowdy did something completely unexpected: He played it straight.

There was no discussion of talking points or stand-down orders, and only one of the seven Republicans on the panel — Jim Jordan of Ohio — even mentioned Clinton. Instead, Gowdy adopted as the theme of his first hearing an idea suggested by one of the committee’s Democrats, Adam Schiff of California: How well the State Department has been implementing recommendations to prevent future attacks on U.S. diplomats like the one in Libya two years ago that killed four Americans.

This is exactly what congressional oversight should be: a bipartisan effort by legislators to make sure executive-branch officials don’t repeat past mistakes. The resulting bonhomie was unprecedented in the two years of Benghazi bickering.

“I thank you for holding this hearing today,” Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s hard-nosed ranking Democrat, told Gowdy. “. . . I want to thank our colleague Representative Schiff for proposing the topic for today’s hearing, and, Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for accepting that topic.”

Cummings’s gratitude flowed freely. He said the hearing was a “transformational moment — the kind of oversight that can be productive. It can be critical. It can sometimes even be tedious. But it can also save lives.”

Over three hours, there were so many thank-yous it could have been the Oscars.

“Honestly, I commend Mr. Schiff,” Gowdy said. “This was a wonderful idea.”

When Cummings asked the chairman whether he would have a State Department official return in a few months to report on progress implementing the new security recommendations, Gowdy immediately agreed.

“I want to thank the gentleman from Maryland for all of his help and . . . the cooperative nature with which he has always worked with me,” Gowdy said. “And I think it’s an excellent idea. . . . I will pledge to you: It will be done.”

All that was missing was a group hug.

The contrast with previous Benghazi hearings led by Rep. Darrell Issa of California could hardly have been greater. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (on which both Gowdy and Cummings serve) made investigations a show about himself — leveling unfounded accusations about high-level wrongdoing in the Obama administration, interrupting hearings to argue with Democrats, even shutting off the microphone (at an IRS hearing) when he didn’t like what Cummings was saying.

Gowdy let everybody else on the panel get a turn before he asked his questions. He didn’t enforce time limits strictly, and he abandoned the top row of the dais in favor of a seat closer to the witnesses. He didn’t quarrel, shout or ask gotcha questions.

Other members of the panel followed Gowdy’s example, with the exception of Jordan, who speculated about a conspiracy between Clinton and Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a way to discredit the State Department’s own report on Benghazi. Jordan, referring to the Democrats, grumbled that “this was a hearing they called.”

It is, of course, possible that Gowdy will later return to his incendiary ways. He may be building up credibility now before taking a more partisan approach later. But he deserves credit for defying expectations in his admirable debut.

The result was a fairly boring session, with arguments about obscure State Department policies and lots of discussion of “OSPB standards” and the like. The biggest bone of contention seemed to be whether the guy in charge of security at State should be an undersecretary or an assistant secretary.

But these are arguments worth having. Gowdy made a good case that the State Department hasn’t done all it should to prevent another Benghazi-like debacle, and there was agreement from Democrats to force the administration to do better. This is what congressional oversight is supposed to be about, rather than an exchange of political barbs.

As he wrapped up the hearing, Gowdy recalled the four dead Americans, one of whom had family in the audience. “I want to adjourn in memory of Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Ty Woods and Glen Doherty,” he said, “and pledge a process that is worthy of their memory and one that our fellow citizens can respect, regardless of their political ideations.”

Cummings embraced the theme. “We are Americans,” he said, “everybody trying to do the best they can to protect our people.”

For once, it really felt that way.

Twitter: @Milbank

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