Futile Symbol of Contempt

Terry Schwadron
4 min readJun 13, 2024

Terry H. Schwadron

June 13, 2024

We’re becoming addicted to symbolism, turning to would-be publicity-generating activities in an endless attempt to promote a political message in hopes of someday getting to the actual goal.

Frankly, congressmen, it feels like a big waste of time and money, and never does anything to lower high prices at the market or make health care more available or make us safer from gun violence or change the patterns of migration hitting our overwhelmed borders. Whether you view these efforts as “political theater,” “stunts,” or election campaign efforts, they never persuade even a single voter to change already made-up minds.

Yesterday, the Republican-majority House teed up a vote of contempt against Attorney General Merrick Garland, passing the measure 216–207, with a single Republican dissent. The ostensible reason was because Garland, as head of the Justice Department, has cited department traditions in withholding audio tapes of President Joe Biden’s interview with Special Counsel Robert Hur — transcripts of which already are in the hands of Congress and the public.

It is because of these interviews, of course, that Hur, a Republican appointed to review Biden’s holding of classified documents in his offices and home, declined to file charges against Biden. Hur found in a 345-page report that any charges were unlikely to carry the day in part because Biden was charming even if showing gaps in his aging memory. In other words, rather than finding the basis for prosecution, Hur found that Biden is old.

No kidding. I think we knew that. Every Congressional Republican knows is. Even Biden knows it. Hur even faced a rap-on-the-knuckles hearing from House Republicans to criticize him from coming to the wrong conclusion, and from Democrats for choosing to include non-legal observations about Biden’s age in the report.

But in an election year, excerpts from the audiotape apparently could make for better television ads that would remind voters that Biden is old than words from the transcript. And as a result, Garland was now in the crosshairs of House Republicans to be found in contempt. The vote on contempt was for defying subpoenas for the tapes, which may also be protected by the same executive privilege that we keep hearing from Donald Trump in his various legal cases.

Of course, the tapes matter and voting contempt do not address any of the top issues that voters say they care about.

What Does It All Mean?

In a hearing just last week, Garland bristled at what he saw as intrusion in Justice Department practices, said Congress had the information it needs, and added that even a contempt vote would not intimidate either him or the Justice Department. Disclosure of the recordings could have a chilling effect on future witness cooperation, Garland says.

Indeed, a vote of contempt directs the Speaker of the House to refer the case to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia — who works for the Justice Department — for potential criminal prosecution by his bosses. What are the chances that comes about?

My argument is not to defend Garland, though he sounds more in the right here, but to note that we are drawn over and over to symbolism as shorthand for problem-solving. For me, the issue is always about understanding what’s at issue, determining the relevant facts, and coming up with what we want to do about it to prevent its repeat. It all sounds so rational — and, as such, completely at odds for resolving serious political divides that are based on emotions rather than on facts.

So we end up arguing about statues and flags flown upside-down, about what slogans get shouted at protest marches, about rejecting legislation just because it is proposed by the other side of the debate rather than looking at whatever might be relevant.

The Republican reaction to the Hunter Biden conviction on charges for violating a law that Republicans in several states are trying to eliminate is a maddening attempt to turn a conviction into a campaign ploy for not pushing yet different charges for which the prosecution apparently lacks evidence. But in the world of symbols, the only issue is whether repeating the words Biden Crime Family enough times will result in some kind of impeachment or criminal charges.

Meanwhile, Republicans are working overtime to ignore the fact that Trump has been convicted of 34 felonies and is facing a possible jail sentence — choosing instead to attack Garland and a host of other state and federal justice prosecutors, judges, jurors, and New York City.

Our arguments about abortion should have nothing to do with in-vitro fertilization clinic operations, for example, except that sloganeering lawmakers are making them do so. Our obsession with transgender student athletes makes it sound as if the issue is a tidal wave of difficulties when, really, it involves a very few number of people.

At this point in our election cycle, few minds are not made up. Using would-be embarrassing tapes from one side as if there aren’t would-be embarrassing recordings from the other side are simply unwanted noise.