I almost feel sorry for Darrell Issa, the California Congressman no one heard of before last Thursday’s meeting of the House Oversight Committee.
Not sorry enough to resist piling on the flaming ashes of his dignity. Not sorry enough to stop fighting his party’s ludicrous waste of my tax dollars agenda. (If the GOP has taught me anything, it’s that my money is mine in perpetuity—before, after and especially during the time any of it goes to visit Uncle Sammy.) And certainly not sorry enough to forgive the far right for inventing my least favorite Republican party game: Stick the Nose (and the ultrasound wand) in the Vagina.
But still … I feel for the man.
After more than a decade in office, Issa finally gets the juice to order himself up his very own Norma Desmond moment—a starring role in televised hearings that people without press passes will actually watch. Who knew he was nowhere near ready for his close-up?
These days even the lowliest intern in Washington knows that politics is all about optics. And however much the backlash over the all-male first panel seems like evidence to the contrary, so do Issa’s staffers. Someone saw to it that Issa had a female staff member sitting next to him, sure to appear on camera every time he leaned in to the mike. (If heads roll over this, why do I feel like hers will be the first to go?) Someone also made sure that the all-male line-up was neither all-white nor all-Christian. So care was taken. No one is pleading ignorance aforethought–no matter how much it seems like the wise thing to do.
The unfortunate truth is that the optics were exactly what the Issa camp ordered–a multicultural, multidenominational parade of patriarchal power, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the frat pack chatted up Coke bottles and pubic hair with Anita Hill.
What surprises me is that the Issa camp doesn’t seem to have seen the power–or expected that others would. I suppose to their minds–and eyes, apparently–the clergy were simply victims of an intrusive, religious freedom-denying state. (The panel’s title, remember, was the unsubtle “Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”)
The problem for us and them is that they did it with a straight face.
Clearly the road to authoritarian leadership isn’t paved with a deep appreciation for irony. Even if it were possible to leave the world beyond that conference room out of the discussion (which it isn’t), it’s tough to imagine that anyone could believe that the optics of that first panel–the image of five men of different faiths and ethnicities standing before a bunch of mostly old white men—was going to communicate “poor oppressed minority” to anyone, man or woman. Then again, maybe Issa and religious conservatives really do see men of the cloth and politicians as distinctly different classes. But I doubt it.
This was a tone deaf doubling down on patriarchal power–but by staging it as they did, the hearing ended up (almost) performing its own self-reflexive feminist critique. I’m not saying it would have helped the Republicans to have found a few happily subordinate nuns to testify. But to bar women from the panel completely and trundle in a busload of Catholic schoolgirls to sit with their hands folded (and legs crossed, presumably) absolutely undermined the very argument the meeting was supposed to address.
It was never going to be easy to convince anyone that the clergy are the real victims of the birth control mandate. But I (almost) feel sorry for Representative Issa, because I’m not sure if his fiercest critics could have done a better job of showing what this debate is really about–a bunch of bullies in sheep’s clothing whining about the religiously-persecuting bully who has the gall not to let them bully someone else.
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.