Asking a U.S. senator for his views on morality is the ultimate fool's errand. As the innkeeper of "Fawlty Towers," the British sitcom, was fond of saying in moments of neighborly inquiry, "you might as well ask the cat."
Yet there the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee were, seeking by any means necessary to derail the nomination of Gina Haspel for director of the CIA, trying to look as wise as a tree full of owls parsing fine points of theology, morality and ethics as if they were earnest sophomores at the seminary.
At issue was whether Mrs. Haspel considers extreme interrogation methods, specifically "waterboarding," which simulates death by drowning, to be sufficiently immoral. Mrs. Haspel had said earlier, in a written answer to a written question, that she does not believe that torture works as an interrogation technique. Her own "strong moral compass" would prevent her authorizing torture even if President Trump told her to use it.
"I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it were technically legal," she said. "I would absolutely not permit it."
This seems as iron-clad as a political promise could be, and it would satisfy most people, as it would Democrats if the situation were reversed and they were asking questions of a CIA nominee of a Democratic president.
But several senators wanted more, exactly what they could not say. It's not easy being a Democratic senator out for revenge for losing an election. Democrats are determined to prevent confirmation for as many of President Trump's nominees as they can, and they're getting desperate for something to ask questions about. Just being against Donald Trump doesn't any longer cut it.
"No one should get credit for simply agreeing to follow the law," said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee. "That's the least we should expect." Complained Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico: "You're giving very legalistic answers to very moral questions."
This was odd, coming from someone who holds fast to his party's message on abortion rights, that a citizen might be entitled to oppose abortion on moral grounds but must obey the law enabling abortion.
Bill Clinton wrote the article in the abortion catechism when he said, to great Democratic applause for his eloquent wisdom: "We must keep abortion safe, legal and rare." He winked when he said "rare" (or maybe, to be fair, a cinder flew into his eye), but his point was understood. Since then the radical feminists have proclaimed abortion as a woman's rite of passage, but everyone understood that point, too.
The vote on Mrs. Haspel is expected to be close. This is an election year and it's no time to anger voters in the party base. Try as they might, the Democrats have yet to "nail a coonskin to the wall," in Lyndon Johnson's famous reprise of Davy Crockett's wisdom, all to exhort the troops in Vietnam.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who knows better, is eager to dispatch Mrs. Haspel to the island of lost nominees. She announced Thursday that she will cast her vote against confirmation.
Mrs. Feinstein is running hard for a third term in the Senate, and she was deprived of the party's endorsement in the spring for being insufficiently liberal for California, where the political spectrum runs from moderate anarchy to lights-out revolution. "She makes a very sympathetic presentation," Mrs. Feinstein said of Mrs. Haspel's answers. But what's a senator with survival at stake to do?
She opposes Mrs. Haspel because she authorized the destruction of videotapes of certain interrogations 13 years ago. CIA agents, Mrs. Haspel said, could have been identified on the tapes, making them easy targets for evil men out to exact revenge.
"I realize there are strong disagreements on the effectiveness of the CIA's detention and interrogation program," she said in written answers to questions about past practices in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. "In my view, a view shared by all nine former directors and acting directors, the CIA was able to collect valuable intelligence that contributed to the prevention of further terrorist attacks. That said, it is impossible to know whether the CIA could have obtained the same information in another way."
Torture is nasty business, whether in North Korea or in a CIA interrogation cell, and sanctimony is cheap. Torture rarely works, say even the grand inquisitors, but even the most devout senator, eloquent in denunciation of it, would change his tune at once if his own child's life hung in the balance and could be saved by putting a kidnapper on a waterboard for a few minutes. No parent is above suspending principles when his child's life is at stake.
Sometimes a president, with thousands of American lives at stake, has a Hobson's choice, too. A little humility would serve any senator well.