Darrell Issa's Three-Ring Circus

Kurt Bardella, the spokesman for House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, didn't last long once it was revealed that he'd been sharing reporters' emails with a book author. I never worked with Bardella. But he comes across as deeply impressed with himself, and he was already on record sneering at and belittling the press (many aides do this, but most have the good sense to keep off the record, since it hardly engenders warm feelings toward their boss). Yesterday, Bardella was fired.


Issa had to fire his spokesman. But the episode could still harm the new Republican majority in the House, because Issa holds an important chairmanship and appeared to be one of the brighter stars in the Republican firmament: smart, savvy, and possessing a keen understanding of how to come off well on television. With a broad purview and subpoena power, Issa was poised to be one of the main players in the Republican effort to take on and take down the Obama administration. But now he looks like a clown--and there's a worrisome cautionary tale about what happens when a clown runs the Oversight Committee.

Flash back to 1997 when Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana became chairman. Burton, too, possessed a healthy ego and considerable ambition. He understood that the Oversight chairmanship could be a vehicle for political stardom, and he, too, went after a Democratic president. Like Issa, who was accused of various and sundry crimes before becoming a congressman, Burton had a sketchy past: he'd famously led an inquiry into the 1993 suicide of Clinton aide Vincent Foster in which Burton, convinced that Foster had been murdered, tried to re-create the event by shooting a pumpkin in his backyard.

Remarkably, Burton still held enormous sway with the media--at least in the beginning. His wildest allegations reliably garnered coverage in all the major media outlets. That is, until people started to notice just how unprofessional most of his "investigations" turned out to be. What ultimately doomed Burton and turned him into a justly ignored laughingstock was when one of his aides doctored a tape from Clinton's associate attorney general Webster Hubbell that had seemed to implicate Hillary Clinton in a fraud. This was amateurish behavior that, like Bardella's, cost the aide his job. But the episode inflicted broad damage on Republicans, whose claim to being principled reformers vanished.

It's too soon to know what effect the Bardella scandal will have on Issa and his party. But when the first casualty of the first investigation is one of your own top staffers, you can be sure that you're off to a lousy start.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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