Whether 'history' or 'entertainment,' Benghazi hearing is packed

Published Oct. 23, 2015

WASHINGTON — The doors into Room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building were completely surrounded, reporters of many nationalities pointing their cameras for glimpses of the stars of the Select Committee on Benghazi.

Tom Fitton slipped through the gantlet without a single flash going off. The president of Judicial Watch could take credit —and did — for Thursday's events. It was Judicial Watch that sued the State Department for emails that found White House aides collaborating on talking points about the attack, and it was those emails that had prodded the Republican majority to create the select committee.

Fitton looked upon his work — and despaired. It was a good day for Judicial Watch's special Benghazi Snapchat filter ("This message will disappear just like Hillary Clinton's emails") but a mixed day in his battle for accountability.

"It's disappointing that a year-and-a-half-plus after the committee was appointed, we're finally having a significant public hearing," Fitton said after a few hours inside the room. "I don't think that's what people expected when the select committee was appointed."

The former secretary of state's epic testimony and interrogation had been years in the making. Some conservatives, including Fitton, had been suing the Clintons for information since the 1990s. Some Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, had been nervous about a blue-ribbon investigation being perceived as electioneering or a vendetta.

Few hearings had been so closely watched. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina was among the Republicans who observed it from the room itself. To get there, he bypassed a line that snaked through the first floor of Longworth, filled with interns in their best suits, Clinton fans sporting buttons with her name, bearded travelers and students cutting classes.

"This looks like fun," Mulvaney said, disappearing into the room.

To do so, he walked past Steven Arango, an intern for Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who had arrived at 10 p.m. the night before and slept in the building to get his spot at the front of the line. He watched a monster-hunting TV show on Netflix to pass the time and ate Cheetos for dinner.

He came, he said, because many people have opinions about the committee, but the only real way to know what's going on is to see it for yourself.

"People say it's bipartisan," he said. "Other people say it's all about attacking. But I wanted to see what the truth is."

Corrogan R. Vaughn, a Maryland Republican activist who ran against the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings, in 2014 but lost, arrived at 7:30 a.m., 2 1/2 hours before start time. He watched the opening statements and ducked out for a restroom break — and came back to find a line estimated at two hours long.

"It's worth it," he said. "It's that important."

Other spectators over the course of the day included the pollster Frank Luntz, wearing his trademark red, white and blue sneakers. "It's history in the making," he said.

Former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, a Republican who presided over House Oversight hearings on doping in baseball, stayed for as long as he could and left praising the "A-game" of both Gowdy and Clinton.

"I think the point that she had all these security warnings, didn't know about it, but was exchanging all these emails with Sidney Blumenthal — that was a good point," Davis said. "But for me, it's entertainment. This is high drama! This is the most exciting thing since the steroids (hearings)!"