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The Utter Ridiculousness of the U.S. Senate

Whit Stillman’s terrific 1990 movie, Metropolitan, portrays New York’s old-money debutante-ball culture, featuring a group of college students who imagine themselves as some kind of social elite in a world that barely knows, let alone cares, that traditional elites still exist. They gather regularly and have customs—such as dressing regularly in formal wear—to which they are committed, and of which they are defensive. Yet they are, despite their self-perception, relentlessly ordinary, just a group of kids who want to party, some of whom are intellectually pretentious, some of whom don’t bother with that and just want to play drinking games and think themselves important.

This is today’s Senate. It is distinguished neither by its deliberation nor by its legislative accomplishments; its members are, with a few notable exceptions, the most ordinary sort of political minds. Yet it is insistent on its prerogatives, constantly reminding people of its status, and with members outraged by the relatively gentle statement of realities that are plain for anyone to see. It is composed of the sort of people who stage a show trial out of fear of the political consequences of doing otherwise, make mockeries of their own oaths, yet expect the maintenance of the pretense that they are gravely deliberating—and wax indignant at any frank description of their conduct. They wish, in short, to be ridiculous without being ridiculed.

This week, senators will have to decide whether they want to remain ridiculous. The New York Times reports that, according to sources who described a book manuscript by former National Security Adviser John Bolton, the president told Bolton in August that he wanted to continue the hold on aid to Ukraine until the country committed to providing derogatory information on the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. If Bolton’s account is accurate, it provides just what the president’s defense team has complained the House managers failed to present: a direct link between the president himself and the hold on aid.

Bolton has said he’s willing to testify in the ongoing trial. The only thing left is for senators to actually call him—for which at least four Republicans would need to break rank. This is the choice with which moderate Republicans are now faced: Vote to hear Bolton, risking your head on a pike but carving out some measure of independence and integrity for yourself, or vote to acquit the president without listening to Bolton’s testimony and appear absurd when the evidence clinching the case against Trump becomes available in every bookstore in America.

But if members of the world’s greatest deliberative body choose to beclown themselves, you had better not laugh at them for it.

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