Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist, and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
Just when you think our politics can’t get any dumber, along comes a congressman with some chicken.
Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, turned up at Thursday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing intent on mocking Attorney General William Barr, who failed to make an appearance after a dispute over the questioning format. Cohen enjoyed a helping of Colonel Sanders’ finest at around 9 a.m. and later told reporters, “Chicken Barr should have showed up today… It’s a sad day in America.”
But a bucket of chicken was not enough! Cohen was armed with another prop – a ceramic chicken – in case anyone missed the sublime subtlety of his stunt.
It got attention – of course it did. Political stunts in Washington usually do. Videos and photos of Cohen devouring fried chicken ran everywhere, a sign that perhaps the hearing was designed to be more of a farce than a serious inquiry.
An absent hearing witness is and should be a serious thing. Given the theatricality of politics, a chair was placed at the witness table to highlight Barr’s absence – a move that was as inevitable as it was obvious.
I have some experience with political stunts myself as the former spokesman for the House Resources Committee. In 2003, then-Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, wrote a letter to committee chairman Richard Pombo, R-California, demanding a hearing on legislation to limit oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeastern Alaska. We granted the request by scheduling a hearing at ANWR – or Kaktovik, Alaska, to be exact.
Markey declared the field hearing a stunt and refused to attend, but his committee dais nameplate did make the trip. It didn’t garner much in the way of media – field hearings in remote locations usually don’t. But my boss at the time instructed staff to place Markey’s nameplate in front of an empty seat at the hearing in Alaska. The image rankled Markey’s team, prompting further debate on the issue. Mission accomplished!
Sure, it was a stunt – and it worked. But they don’t always.
In 1998, when Republican Rep. Mike Pappas sang “Twinkle Twinkle, Kenneth Starr” on the House floor in the middle of our last impeachment ordeal, the panned performance dominated Pappas’ unsuccessful re-election campaign. His cleverness was his downfall.
Cohen’s antics may go down in the history books as yet another ill-conceived stunt.
The chicken became a leading part of the story. When fellow committee member Hakeem Jeffries told the press, “We won’t overreach, we won’t over-politicize, we won’t over-investigate, but we will do our constitutional oversight responsibility,” it was hard to take him seriously while Cohen stood nearby, holding that ceramic chicken.
It didn’t help when Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler laughed at Cohen’s breakfast choice – it calls into question not only the sincerity of the Barr hearing but also the earnestness of the numerous investigations House Democrats are pursuing. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been reluctant to launch impeachment proceedings, some of her rank-and-file members are not taking such measured approaches.
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Our politicians and our media keep telling us that these are serious times. Just last week, speakers at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner emphatically defended the press. Media coverage should reflect the gravity of the situation, instead of focusing on a member of Congress looking for some finger-lickin’ attention.
Otherwise, partisans continue speaking only to their own tribes, happy they “owned” the other side, while the cynicism and outrage facing the media and our politicians grow.
“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever,” David St. Hubbins tells us in “This is Spinal Tap.” The House of Representatives yesterday might have been both.