The Congressional Aide and the Flight of Icarus

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It was the flight of Icarus.

"He flew too close to the sun," said one veteran House aide.

And so goes the fall this week of Kurt Bardella, erstwhile spokesman for House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA).

In Greek mythology, Daedalus used wax and feathers to craft a set of wings for his son Icarus. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. But the exuberance of flying overcame Icarus. The sun singed the wings, melting them. And Icarus plunged precipitously to Earth.

Few outside the Beltway have ever heard of Kurt Bardella. But everyone who's anyone inside the Beltway knows exactly who he is. Over the past few years, Bardella grew to become one of the most influential and sought-after aides on Capitol Hill. Bardella's stature grew exponentially as Republicans seized control of the House and Issa became chairman of the powerful House Oversight panel.

In the GOP majority, the House Oversight Committee was expected to be one of the best posts for action this year. The press crafted two narratives for the Republican takeover of the House: the GOP was going to chop government spending and Darrell Issa was going to conduct more investigations than Benson and Stabler on SVU.

And Kurt Bardella had a plum assignment as Issa's flak

Bardella fashioned Issa's image, who as chairman of the committee, serves as Congress's top watchdog. Under Bardella's stage management, it wasn't long until the press dubbed Issa the "annoyer in chief" for his efforts to probe everything from the Obama Administration to Countrywide.

Few Congressional aides toiled longer each day than Bardella. He blasted out emails to reporters at the witching hour and before the rooster crowed. And no Washington press aide did more to promote his boss than Kurt Bardella. He and Issa were inseparable, with Bardella becoming known as "Mini-Me."

Capitol Hill can be cliquish, especially when it comes to the tightly-knit club of press secretaries. And there was a contingent of Republican and Democratic communications directors who grew increasingly annoyed with Bardella's tactics and even antics to score headlines for Issa and sometimes himself.

People can quibble about Bardella's methods. But one thing's for certain: no one was more successful in promoting his boss to the press than Kurt Bardella.

After all, isn't that what a press secretary is supposed to do?

Certainly Issa is going to conduct his share of inquiries over the next two years and garner scads of press. But interestingly, the House Republican brass never intended the scope and impact of Issa's investigations to resemble some of the witch hunts that the media anticipated they could be.

Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) chaired the Oversight Committee in the mid-1990s when Republicans ruled the House and President Clinton was their quarry. Today, many GOP leaders wince at the style of those inquests. Some suggested that Issa wouldn't be successful if he ran the oversight panel with the same partisan zeal as Burton.

Those in Washington who did their homework realized that Issa's stewardship wouldn't mirror Burton's. However, that wasn't the public's perception. And much of that was due to Bardella's handiwork.

After all, the best theatre in Washington is the threat of real action.

And then came the breakup between Issa and Bardella. Which in Congressional terms is about as seismic as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston hitting splitsville.

Issa sacked Bardella the other day after it came to light that his staffer shared private email exchanges he conducted with reporters about Congressional business with Mark Leibovich of the New York Times. Leibovich is writing a book about the culture of Washington.

Many argue Issa had to fire Bardella. After all, who watches the watchmen? Must not the leading investigative committee in Congress be beyond reproach itself if it's to maintain credibility?

Ye who are without sin...

"He has been fired with cause," said Issa after conducting a brief probe.

And that's grand irony in this entire saga. Everyone knew Issa was going to conduct big investigations and score major write-ups this year. But no one could anticipate that the California Republican's most-stored inquiry to date would be that one that involved the conduct of his own aide.


Washington is a town of parables.

It has to be.

Ambition and aggressiveness are rewarded. And then sometimes punished.

A thin line separates victory from failure. Yet chasms divide those who are successful and those on the outside looking in.

Power is achieved, only to be lost. And sometimes regained. Dreams can be dashed, almost as quickly as they're realized.

It's no wonder the place spawns fables.

There's a new allegory in Washington. But in many respects, it's one that pre-dates the republic.

The tale that emerged this week of Kurt Bardella is one that's been told for generations here. A driven, young figure arrives on the scene and makes a meteoric rise through the city's power structure. He gets to know the right people and makes a name for himself, evolving into a key player. Then like Icarus, he executes a fatal, solar sortie. That mistake pulverizes it all. And he falls back to Earth.

Pieter Bruegel's painting titled "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" from the mid-16th century is one of the most impressive depictions of this Greek myth. Bruegel shows the body of Icarus floating in the sea after his failed flight. But despite the fate of Icarus, life goes on. Bruegel paints a farmer routinely plowing his field. There's a shepherd tending to his flock. And an angler pursues the catch of the day.

All are indifferent to the plight of Icarus.

But Bruegel adds a twist to his painting. In the distance, the sun sets on the horizon. Yes, Icarus took flight. But to Bruegel, Icarus never even made it to the sun, let alone had his wings melted.

After the Bardella canning, scores of chiefs of staff and lawmakers themselves all over Capitol Hill conducted frank conversations with their aides about rules when engaging the media. The echoes of the Bardella incident will reverberate for a while in the halls of Congress. It will stand as an iconic tale of someone who rose and fell in one of the most unforgiving arenas on the planet.

Late this week, some reporters peppered Issa with questions about what was next in this episode.

"I have to hire a new press secretary," Issa said matter-of-factly before ducking onto the House floor.

And by Friday, the Oversight Committee announced Bardella's successor: Becca Glover Watkins.

On Capitol Hill, Icarus had plunged into the sea. But life went on. The plowman plowed. The shepherd herded. And the fisherman cast his line.