Petraeus hearings made for TV

Perhaps lacking just a little of the pomp and circumstance that will accompany next week’s visit by Pope Benedict XVI, Tuesday’s Capitol Hill arrival of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker promises its own ample supply of ritual, not to mention some high-profile congregants who no doubt want to bask in the holy glow of the day’s sanctified events.

Along with the highly anticipated after-the-surge assessments, today’s Senate-side appearances by Petraeus and Crocker give presidential contenders Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLessons of the Kamala Harris campaign Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Top Armed Services Democrat scolds military leaders on Trump's intervention in war crimes cases MORE, Hillary Rodham Clinton (Senate Armed Services) and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTeaching black children to read is an act of social justice Buttigieg draws fresh scrutiny, attacks in sprint to Iowa The shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley MORE (Senate Foreign Relations) a welcome break from the arduous campaign trail.

Instead of being forced to read multiple staff-written speeches before stage-lit, choreographed audiences, the three will return home to more familiar confines so they can read staff-prepared questions off three-by-five cards before stage-lit, choreographed audiences.

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As the Campaign 2008 trail officially snakes up Constitution Avenue and into the historic Dirksen and Hart Senate office building hearing rooms today, cable news producers will earn special bonuses if they successfully calculate the exact moment when the respective candidates alternately praise or pummel Petraeus and Crocker about the “surge.” Not only will the candidates’ parsed words be under the journalistic microscope throughout the day, the network cameras will also be fixed on all three as they, benignly or not, wait and watch their non-presidential colleagues read from their own three-by-five cards.

No perceived sneer, harrumph, raised eyebrow, scratch or inelegant throat-clearing episode is too miniscule to be distilled, deciphered, hyper-analyzed and dissected by the pundit class as they seek to ascribe meaning and significance.

Heaven forbid if any of the three has the urge to go to the restroom during any part of hearings. Such a “candidate protest” or “senatorial walk-out” could set off a world crisis or plummet the markets. Might be a good time to institute a new one-day Senate rule that requires committee members to request permission for all potty breaks. That might calm things down a bit.

Given the restrictive nature of congressional hearings in general, it is hard to envision how McCain and Clinton could engage in any interesting mini-debate exchanges during their time together.

It might be a nice 21st-century innovation if, given the high-stakes, Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinRemembering leaders who put country above party Strange bedfellows oppose the filibuster Listen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home MORE (D-Mich.) were to yield 100 percent of the Democrats’ questioning time to Clinton, and McCain took all the GOP time for himself. That would turn this already must-see-TV event into pay-per-view in one easy step.

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A Hollywood scriptwriter’s dream, I expect that won’t happen because 20th-century Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), and John Warner (R-Va.) would respectfully object, along with just about everyone else on the committee for that matter.

By the sacred, ring-kissing rules of Senate seniority, the first of the candidates we are likely to see will be McCain (Ariz.), the ranking Republican on Armed Services, which meets in the morning. Further down the seniority list, but on the same panel, is Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Obama (D-Ill.) will have to wait till much later in the day for his time in the spotlight. Obama’s committee, Senate Foreign Relations, commences in the cavernous TV-friendly Hart hearing room, but not until 2:30 p.m.

It’s a spacious venue with plenty of room for cameras, reporters, and Code Pinkers, but Obama will be fortunate if he gets on television before Jay Leno.

Although a relatively new member of the Senate, Obama is no stranger to the ritual of waiting patiently for his time to come during high-profile hearings, but jokes aside, Obama has every right to worry that he might not pop up in the rotation before the evening news broadcasts.

Being on the Foreign Relations Committee, Obama doesn’t have to compete with McCain or Clinton, but he does have a whole other challenge — three former presidential candidates.

Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKrystal Ball: New Biden ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage Krystal Ball: Biden's new ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats MORE (D-Mass.) all get their question time before Obama. And, as far as the clock ticks, did I already mention that Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Judiciary Committee formally receives impeachment report Democratic strategist: 'Medicare for All' exposes generational gap within party Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations MORE would be there?

Truth be told, I am a huge Biden fan, but planets have been discovered in the time it takes him to finish his thought. Having offered that mild bash, I will do my own ring-kissing by adding that Biden is a first-rate thinker and a wonderfully engaging character who would make a great vice president or secretary of State for Obama or Clinton. Heck, McCain too, for that matter.

Petraeus and Crocker do the all-day hearing ritual on the House side Wednesday, but we only have former presidential candidates over there, so things should be a little less frenetic.

On Thursday, after all the cameras have moved along to more fertile fields, the non-sexy House Foreign Affairs International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight subcommittee has a hearing entitled “War Powers for the 21st Century: The Constitutional Perspective.”

A little late for the pre- or post-surged Iraq, and the hearing will probably be ill-attended by the press and members, but not a bad opportunity for members of Congress to be reminded that the responsibility for war rests with them. A quaint 18th-century idea not likely to be discussed at length during the year by McCain, Clinton or Obama.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.