There’s been plenty of breathless buildup to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s testimony before Congress next week in which House Republicans are determined to find out what really happened in Benghazi.

Conspiracy theories abounded that Clinton was dodging congressional scrutiny of the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya by faking health problems — a virus, a concussion and a blood clot — that prevented her from making the trek to the Hill.

But if recent history is any guide, her appearance will probably be less fireworks and more “meh.” One reason: Clinton is a veteran witness, adept at dampening drama. But more important, there have been few truly blockbuster hearings of late. Little theatricality along the lines of “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” from the Army-McCarthy hearings, or Oliver North attorney Brendan Sullivan insisting he wasn’t “a potted plant” during the Iran-contra investigation.

The most memorable hearing of the past few years might be famous for what didn’t happen: The conspicuous lack of female representation on a House panel on contraception last year created an image that proved hard for Republicans to shake. And another notable moment in recent congressional hearings took place offstage, when the auto executives seeking massive bailouts for their floundering companies in 2008 arrived for their testimony in corporate jets.

Sure, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) does his level best to keep hearings lively. He chaired that all-male contraception panel and knows how to oversee testy sessions on issues such as the General Services Administration spending scandal.

Still, no less an authority on stagecraft than former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) declared the death of the revelatory hearing over a decade ago (and as an actor, the guy knows a good scene). “Nowadays, the ability of Congress to really find out anything substantive in congressional hearings has been extremely limited,” he said way back in a 1999 interview.

And so while House Republicans may be coming to the hearing with knives — and prepared questions — sharpened, we might suggest the rest of us tune in armed with a fresh crossword puzzle.

One too many

President Obama apparently forgot a cardinal rule at Monday’s news conference: It’s always the last one that gets you in trouble.

It’s always that last ski run, the one before sunset, that blows out your knee.

Or that last bet at the poker table, when you’re on a streak, flush with chips, that leaves you broke.

And we all know how that last e-mail in a testy exchange, the really nasty one, goes out after the sender mistakenly hits “reply all.”

And so Obama on Monday, after blistering Republicans over the debt ceiling, responded to a question by New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes about whether part of his problem with Republicans was that “you don’t socialize enough.”

This led to a somewhat rambling answer in which Obama said things like “I’m a pretty friendly guy” and “I like a good party.” And the girls are older and don’t want to hang with him so much these days, “so I’ll be probably calling around, looking for somebody to play cards with me or something, because I’m getting kind of lonely in this big house.”

That fired up the twitterverse big time, resulting in things like the hashtag #ObamaNeedsFriends.

Remember, too, it was the last question at a July 22, 2009, news conference — also in the East Room — when Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet asked Obama about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Gates’s home.

What might that “say to you,” she asked, “and what does it say about race relations in America?”

Obama started off perfectly, saying that Gates was a pal and “so I may be a little biased here.” He followed with: “I don’t know all the facts.”

Excellent end. Oh, but then he meandered into the observation that “the Cambridge police acted stupidly.” Which soon got us to the famous “Beer Summit” with the arresting officer, Gates, Obama and Vice President Biden sitting around a table near the Rose Garden.

So don’t take that last question — especially when it’s from sharp, experienced reporters.


Innovations in the political lexicon don’t come along often. That’s why we’re eagerly welcoming the addition of the word “cliff.”

At first, it was paired exclusively with the word “fiscal” and used to describe the sharp tax increases and spending cuts that would have happened this year without congressional action. But it’s crept into the discourse in other forms, flitting around with other modifiers willy-nilly. There’s a deadline on the deficit ceiling? Call that the “deficit cliff”!

The expiration of milk subsidies: the “dairy cliff.”

And anything threatening to run out of funding is facing its own “cliff,” if headlines are to be believed.

It’s a useful and evocative metaphor, certainly, implying a stark point of no return and a gaping abyss ahead. In fact, it’s so ominous that at the peak (pun intended) of the debate over the fiscal cliff, those who hoped to metaphorically plunge off of it argued that the media should call it instead a “fiscal slope.”

Allan Metcalf, a professor of English at MacMurray College and the author of “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,” notes that “cliff” is much like the suffix “-gate” that’s used to connote scandal — a word or phrase that catches on in popular culture and gets applied to a variety of contexts.

Other examples of the phenomenon include ­
“-pocalypse”­ and “-mageddon” used as suffixes for various catastrophes, he notes. And thanks to recent current events, we’ve collectively come to refer to percentages — the 1 percent (the truly elite) or the 47 percent (Mitt Romney’s estimation of the proportion of government-spongers).

“ ‘Cliff’ is just another prominent term waiting for others to jump off with it,” he said.

With Emily Heil

Alice Crites and Matt DeLong contributed to this column.
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