Partisanship on Steroids

I reacted to last decade’s brouhaha over steroid use in major league baseball pretty strictly from the perspective of a fan. Sports (and for that matter, video games) are an artificially ideal alternative universe governed by rules where pure talent, persistance and teamwork are rewarded. Performance-enhancing drug use screws up all those fine assumptions. Moreover, as anyone who saw Moneyball probably understands, baseball is quintessentially the game that can be appreciated via statistics (that’s what 154- or 162-game seasons will do for you), and whatever their other sins against God, nature or the state, juiced players threatened the ability to compare performances over many decades and argue about them incessantly.

So I didn’t know until I read Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s article at TNR on the subject that the congressional hearings over steroid use in MLB, or the subsequent trial of Roger Clemens for perjuring himself at those hearings by denying steroid use, had become a partisan political issue as well.

In 2005, the House of Representatives held its first hearing on steroids in baseball. A group of beefy stars—Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa—put on suits and shuffled in to appear before the House Committee on Government Reform. Some denied everything; others were awkwardly evasive. In 2008, following the publication of a report authored by former Senator George Mitchell that included damning allegations by Clemens’s ex-trainer, the pitcher was called to testify. Under oath, Clemens denied using steroids, an assertion that most observers doubted.

The hearing was purportedly meant to discourage young athletes from juicing, but it quickly devolved into a heated referendum on Clemens—one that broke down mostly along party lines. North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx presented four photos of Clemens at different stages in his career—evidence, in her view, that he had never enhanced himself artificially. “It doesn’t appear to me that your size has changed much,” she remarked. Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland called the hearing a “show trial.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings said he found Clemens “hard to believe.” Nearly five hours after it began, Virginia Republican Tom Davis drew the hearing to a close. “It’s been a long day,” he told those present. “I’m sure there were other things you would have preferred to have done.”

A couple of weeks later, Democratic Committee Chair Henry Waxman asked the Justice Department to investigate Clemens for perjury. Davis, the ranking Republican, acquiesced but also drafted a 109-page defense of Clemens. Last July, Clemens was tried for perjury and obstruction of justice; the case ended in a mistrial two days after it began, when the prosecution introduced evidence that the judge had deemed impermissible.

While the Justice Department pressed on, Republican members of the House begged for mercy. “He’s lost his money. He’s probably lost his chance at the Hall,” Davis told reporters last year. “I think he’s suffered enough.” “I don’t believe that his false testimony when he gave it was anything other than Henry Waxman trapping him,” California Republican Darrell Issa, currently head of the government reform committee, told The Hill.

Now that Clemens is on trial again, the public seems to have pretty much lost interest in the case. But not, notes Van Zuylen-Wood, Republican pols, who continue to express great sympathy for a drug-abusing scofflaw, albeit a rich white Republican drug-abusing scofflaw.

Why am I not surprised?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.