What? Of Barack Obama and Don Draper

Paul Greenberg

5/17/2013 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Our president is one cool customer, careful to stay a little distant from his Scandal of the Day, sidestepping any embarrassing questions rather than confronting them, analyzing his critics rather than answering them, looking down on the political circus even as he stars in it. And he does it all so smoothly.

Why, sure. Why rock the boat when he can guide it so deftly that no one may notice his hand on the tiller? It's worked so far. The country seems to like his style. See the results of the last presidential election.

Don Draper is a fictional character, the centerpiece of the soap opera and costume drama set in the 1960ish suites of Madison Avenue, and so cool a customer he made "Mad Men" a must-watch in its heyday. As played by the talented Jon Hamm, who was born to play this role, Don Draper is something to see, all right, if just for his extensive repertoire of variations on a single word: What?

Depending on the circumstances, Don Draper can make What? a question, an exclamation, a taunt or a greeting, or just a verbal reflex -- or almost anything else. He's got a whole orchestra of tones, a veritable Mormon Tabernacle Choir of them, in which to deliver that single all-expressive syllable, What? Don is a kind of artist in his own way, projecting a mystery he knows his audience can't resist wondering about.

And he could've been voicing my own reaction to the president's press conference Monday about Benghazi, though it also touched on other subjects. But those were just side dishes. The British prime minister was in town and in attendance, but he was only part of the backdrop, a prop, like a potted palm. His visit was the occasion, not the reason, for this presidential tour de force. The starring role, as always, was played by Maestro Obama, even if his old magic has started to fade.

Hope and Change may have become only ironic terms when applied to this president, but he's doubling down on Audacity. As he proceeded to offer one cover story after another to cover the gaps in the earlier ones, our response was much the same as that of the veteran foreign officer Gregory Hicks when he heard the very first cover story at the start of l'Affaire Benghazi: "I was stunned. My jaw dropped."

But this time it wasn't the shamelessness of the president's changing stories but the sheer profusion of them that impressed. There were so many to choose from that it would be hard to pick my favorite three or four -- or 10. A whole Hallelujah Chorus of What? in all its varied, organ-deep chords began to resound in my mind. As when the president said:

"And the emails that you allude to were provided by us to congressional committees. They reviewed them several months ago, concluded that in fact there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used. And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there's something new to the story."

What? By now the whole, foul history of how these talking points were doctored has been extensively documented by five different congressional committees, and their extensive findings were released in an interim report issued not several months but just a couple of weeks ago. Its conclusion:

In the days following the attacks, White House and senior State Department officials altered accurate talking points drafted by the intelligence community in order to protect the State Department.

One report, by ABC's Jonathan Karl, counted 12 different revisions made to hide any connection between groups like al-Qaida to the slaughter at Benghazi.

There's more, much more. For example, the president proudly displayed the conclusion of a distinguished review committee to back up his latest story.

What?

There was no need to mention that one of the review committee's chiefs, the distinguished diplomat Thomas Pickering, has made it clear that it examined only security arrangements, such as they were, for our people in Benghazi -- and not the administration's ever-changing versions of who killed them and why. ("With full respect, the Accountability Review Board was there to look at the question of security." -- Ambassador Pickering on "Meet the Press")

That committee never even bothered to conduct an in-depth interview with the figure at the center of these cover stories, Our Lady of Benghazi herself, the secretary of state at the time. She somehow managed to accept responsibility for Benghazi without accepting responsibility for Benghazi -- a neat trick. The kind of trick Hillary Clinton perfected some years ago while in residence at the White House during the scandal-pocked Clinton Years.

Oh, and the president also claimed Monday that, the day after that murderous assault at Benghazi, he had denounced it as "an act of terrorism."

What? What he actually did in his statement that day was just tack on a line of patriotic boilerplate to his speech: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation . . . ."

Note well: Terror, not terrorism. So what? What difference does it make? A lot. Without the addition of that -ism to the word, anyone listening to the president's statement that day might have assumed that our diplomats -- and their courageous defenders -- were victims of some act of spontaneous combustion, of a mob that had materialized from nowhere. And not a well-orchestrated, carefully prepared attack by a fully armed terrorist gang linked to al-Qaida, which the president, carried away by his own campaign oratory, had claimed he'd decimated and had "on the run."

That may explain why the president studiously and repeatedly avoided using the word "terrorism" in connection with Benghazi. His press conference Monday, the Washington Post's fact checker found, may have been the first time he ever used that exact word in a public statement about Benghazi. In the course of claiming he'd used it from the first. (We told you the man was smooth.)

The difference between using the right word and the almost-right word can prove immense. As a Republican named Abraham Lincoln well knew when he noted the "the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Words matter. Especially a president's words.

But my top pick when it comes to sheer brass was the president's assertion Monday that anyone who doubts his Authorized Version of events at Benghazi, and how it was concocted, dishonors our dead: "And so we -- we dishonor them when, you know, we turn things like this into a political circus.

What?

Just who has been playing politics from the first of this awful story? And how respond to such an accusation without using these honored dead as political foils? There are some things that simple propriety, not to mention just plain just decency, will not allow. That kind of rhetorical tactic should be left to our president. For there is a kind of baseness so low that not even a newspaper columnist should sink to it.