Republican apologists for the Bush administration's failed fight in Iraq and their amen corner in the media have been looking for something, anything, to distract the American public from a necessary discussion about the need to end the U.S. occupation of that country. They finally settled last week on the "scandal" involving House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's mode of transporation.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, was informed as she prepared to assume the speakership -- a position that places her third in the line of succession to the presidency -- that she could no longer travel as she previously had: on commercial airlines. She would, she was informed, have to fly as former Speaker Dennis Hastert had on a secure Air Force plane. So it was that, upon becoming speaker, Pelosi accepted her new circumstance and agreed to use a military plane with a fuel capacity that would allow for cross-country travel without stops.
That's not exactly the stuff of scandal. But, after an apparent "leak" from the Bush administration's Department of Defense to the White House-friendly Washington Times newspaper, the Times last week ran a story headlined: "Pelosi's Power Trip -- Non-stop Nancy Seeks Flight of Fancy."
Fox News jumped on the story, followed by other cable networks. The Republican National Committee stoked it with emails to reporters and briefing papers supposedly exposing Pelosi's imperial style -- and ambitions. The predictable Sean Hannity declared that Pelosi "thinks she's the president" -- seemingly unaware that by referencing the presidency he was acknowledging his own dear leader's regal pretensions.
Republican members of the House actually brought the issue up on the floor of a chamber that should have been focused on the question of how and when to end a war that began as Dick Cheney's "power trip" and George Bush's flight of fancy" but has since turned into an international disaster.
House Republican Conference chair Adam Putnam, of Florida accused Pelosi of displaying "an arrogance of office that just defies common sense."
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, of Missouri, referred to the plane Pelosi would likely use as a "flying Lincoln Bedroom."
North Carolina Congressman Patrick T. McHenry, arguably the most consistently hysterical member of an increasingly hysterical caucus, described the speaker's plane as "Pelosi One," and declared that, "This is a bullet point to a larger value -- Pelosi's abuse of power continues.
McHenry accused the speaker of "exploiting America's armed forces and taxpayers for her own personal convenience."
Yikes! This was the Republican spin machine churning at full throttle.
There was only, er, one problem.
The charge that Pelosi was abusing her position was a complete fabrication.
The speaker did not request a bigger or better plane.
It was the man in charge of making security arrangements for members of the Congress who made the request.
House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood has confirmed that, for security reasons, he asked that Pelosi be provided with an Air Force plane that could make the trip from Washington to San Francisco without stopping to refuel.
"The fact that Speaker Pelosi lives in California compelled me to request an aircraft that is capable of making non-stop flights for security purposes, unless such an aircraft is unavailable," Livingood explained in a written statement. "I regret that an issue that is exclusively considered and decided in a security context has evolved into a political issue."
Livingood, who has served as sergeant at arms for 11 years, made similar arrangements for past speakers.
That was something the Republican National Committee and its media echo chamber could have discovered simply by contacting the Office of the Sergeant at Arms.
It is something that Republican Representatives Putnam, Blunt and McHenry should have known.
In fact, if this Congress had nothing else on its agenda, it might well be appropriate to inquire into whether Putnam, Blunt and McHenry used their positions to engage in a deliberate conspiracy to deceive the American people for partisan purposes.
But Congress has a higher calling. It is time to put aside the distractions and get focused on the discussion about war and peace that the administration and its acolytes on Capitol Hill are so determined to avoid.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"