Back in the days when remote controls for changing channels were a brag-to-the-neighbors luxury accessory, Mad magazine developed a series of comic features called Television Roulette. They recreated what the dialogue supposedly might sound like if you clicked fast on a Sunday night from, say, Steve Allen to a Drano commercial to Ed Sullivan.
Modern video feeds and the clustering of three Trump Cabinet hearings on Thursday morning allowed you to play a similar game that could be called Confirmation Roulette. At times it went like this:
Gen. James Mattis (DOD): “The F-35 is critical for our security in the future for its stealth characteristic …”
Rep. Mike Pompeo (CIA): “I begin with the threat from terrorism as it extends into the homeland. If you ask what’s the most immediate threat … to a person living in south central Kansas …”
Ben Carson (HUD): “I’ve been this close to homelessness myself.”
Carson was the soft-spoken, affable, but slightly vague, fellow we all remember from the GOP primary debates. In their first turns on center stage, Pompeo and, even more so, Mattis were asked to play a role far different than the typical high-level presidential appointee.
Normally, Cabinet-level nominees are pressed on how they would subordinate any maverick tendencies to the president’s agenda. But with Donald Trump about to move his bull-in-a-china-shop act to the Oval Office, senators in both parties either explicitly or implicitly looked to Pompeo and Mattis for reassurance of their independence.
During the public portion of the Intelligence Committee hearing, Diane Feinstein bluntly asked Pompeo, “If you were ordered by the president to restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, … would you comply?”
What the California Democrat was asking was whether Pompeo would obey an illegal order since Congress banned in 2015 all interrogation techniques like waterboarding not approved by the Army Field Manual. “Absolutely not,” Pompeo replied. “Moreover, I can’t imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect or the then-president.”
Feinstein’s was not an idle inquiry since Trump embraced waterboarding all through the campaign. In fact, at one point, the former reality show host even suggested that he would order American troops to commit war crimes by targeting the families of terrorists.
There was a period during the Cold War when liberals actually worried about the possibility of a military coup in America. That was the plot of “Seven Days in May” — a 1962 best-selling novel and a 1964 movie starring Burt Lancaster and Kurt Douglas.
The crisp Mattis hearing, which might be called “Three Hours in January,” was just the opposite. Again and again, the senators embraced the retired Marine four-star general as the designated adult in the Cabinet who would restrain President Trump. As Mattis put it, “I would not have taken this job if I didn’t believe that the president-elect would also be open to my input.”
The weight placed on the Mattis appointment partly reflects would-be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s evasive testimony at his own confirmation hearing Wednesday when the former Exxon Mobil CEO’s favorite answer seemed to be, “I do not have sufficient information.” With Tillerson wobbly at best on Russia, Mattis emerged as the strongest bulwark for those who believe passionately in the NATO alliance.
Opening the Mattis hearing, John McCain asked the general about America’s commitment to the imperiled Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all NATO members. Mattis responded forcefully, “Since Yalta, we have a long list of times we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard.”
There were moments during the hearing when it seemed like Mattis had wandered in from a different reality-based administration. Mattis may dislike the nickname “Mad Dog,” which he said was bestowed by the press, but it is hard to believe that Trump would have appointed him if his moniker had been “Prudent Commander.”
Trump’s White House national security staff appears to have a problem with facts. When the incoming national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, was at the Pentagon, his fanciful interpretations of intelligence were known as “Flynn Facts.” And Monica Crowley, slated to be a top national security aide, has been convincingly accused of a longtime pattern of plagiarism.
In short, Flynn loves his own facts too much and Crowley is overly smitten with other people’s facts.
No matter how much institutional weight a Defense secretary brings to the Cabinet table, the Pentagon — like the CIA — is on the other side of the Potomac from the Oval Office. And recent history is riddled with senior Cabinet members (like Secretary of State Colin Powell during the run-up to the Iraq War) with diminished clout in the Situation Room in the White House during a crisis.
It has been a long time since a Pentagon chief was both successful and revered nationally. Instead, we tend to remember Defense secretaries for their failures — like Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara. But during Thursday’s confirmation hearing, the hope shimmered in both parties that James Mattis, now a civilian, would be the rare exception.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.