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Monday, Nov 19 2012 11:00 PM

'Talking points' debate: Give it a rest, guys

By The Bakersfield Californian

Once upon a time, Sen. John McCain was the conscience of the Republican Party, a feisty and passionate firebrand who took principled, nonpartisan approaches to the nation's problems at least as often as he served party interests.

Where is that John McCain now? Feeding a 4-year-old grudge, from all appearances.

Either that or McCain is actually convinced that the initial uncertainty and/or misstatements about the identity of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, constitutes a public-trust breach of truly historic proportions.

McCain's hyperbole train went off the tracks last week when he skipped a congressional briefing on the Benghazi tragedy in order to hold a news conference in which he called for a Watergate-styled Senate "select committee." Nobody except the most rabid of partisans bit on that one. Even Joe Lieberman, McCain's closest friend in the Senate (and almost-running mate in 2008) waved off the idea, declaring that the circumstances don't "rise to the level" of McCain's allegations. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed, saying the existing investigations are fully capable of getting to the bottom of things.

But McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., persisted on the Sunday morning talk circuit, continuing to suggest that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's explanation of the attackers' motives was the central issue when it came to Benghazi. But it's not the central issue -- not even close. Instead, U.S. leaders should be investigating why the facility wasn't better protected; why, if more fortification was not realistic, the ambassador was there at all; and how to better prepare in similar settings next time. The question of who said what when in the aftermath pales in importance, although that, too, deserves answers.

McCain's inference that Rice, and by extention the White House, was playing some sort of political game is itself a political game. McCain needs to acknowledge that the 2012 election is over, and so is the 2008 election.

Graham, who appeared on "Meet the Press," suggested the White House changed the post-Benghazi "talking points" to hide the fact that al-Qaida, and not a mob riled up over an anti-Islam video (as was actually the case earlier in Egypt), had attacked the consulate. That, Graham said, was done intentionally so that the president's campaign boast about killing Osama bin Laden and essentially dismantling al-Qaida could not effectively be challenged. And if al-Qaida was still this active, Graham seemed to reason, President Obama would not have been re-elected.

Another unconsidered possibility: No one knew, with absolute certainty, what had happened. And, yes, that would mean Rice jumped the gun. No doubt the "talking points" authorized by CIA officials are worth asking about. But they are not the most important thing on the president's and Congress' plate.

These are:

* Find a bipartisan solution to the fiscal cliff before we dive into another recession.

* Deal with the exploding mess in the Gaza Strip before we're caught in the whirlpool.

* Study embassy security enhancements in the volatile, post-Arab Spring world.

Or not. Maybe it's just more personally fulfilling for McCain and Graham to fight old political wars than to fix today's problems.

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