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What Really Happened on January 6?

Will the January 6 hearings live up to the great congressional investigations of the past?

June 8, 2022
Watergate Committee hearing
Corbis Historical/Getty

You’re read­ing The Brief­ing, Michael Wald­­­­­­­­man’s weekly news­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­let­ter. Click here to receive it every week in your inbox.

This Thursday night, ABC, CBS, and NBC will air the first public Janu­ary 6th Commit­tee hear­ing on the insur­rec­tion and its origins. It looks to be the most signi­fic­ant set of congres­sional hear­ings in decades — and the revival of an import­ant tradi­tion, one that combines lurid melo­drama with consti­tu­tional law.  

Such hear­ings once happened often. Gavels would bang, scowl­ing lawmakers would demand answers, bureau­crats would quake, and view­ers tuned in. Often major legis­la­tion would result. It was the essence of congres­sional over­sight. It’s a declin­ing art form.   

The Pujo Commit­tee hear­ings exposed the work­ings of the “Money Trust” — banks that controlled the finan­cial system through pred­at­ory and discrim­in­at­ory prac­tices — in 1912 and 1913 and led to the creation of the Federal Reserve and a consti­tu­tional amend­ment author­iz­ing the income tax. The Army-McCarthy hear­ings revealed the Wiscon­sin senator Joseph McCarthy (R) to be a demagogue (and intro­duced the world to a sleazy young McCarthy aide, Roy Cohn, mentor decades later to . . .  yes, Donald Trump). 

In the 1970s, the panel chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-ID) revealed the CIA’s and FBI’s abuses, ranging from the perse­cu­tion of Martin Luther King Jr. to JFK’s Mafia-linked girl­friend. That invest­ig­a­tion led to policy reforms such as the passage of the Foreign Intel­li­gence Surveil­lance Act and other mech­an­isms to curb the Imper­ial Pres­id­ency and out-of-control intel­li­gence agen­cies. 

As a junior high school student in Long Island in 1973, I took summer classes that revolved around watch­ing the Senate Water­gate Commit­tee hear­ings. It was mesmer­iz­ing. Former White House Coun­sel John Dean’s accus­a­tions of crimin­al­ity against Pres­id­ent Nixon. The Oval Office taping system that proved Nixon’s guilt. The whole coun­try watched.  

Past congres­sional hear­ings hold import­ant lessons for the organ­izers of the upcom­ing Janu­ary 6 hear­ings. 

First and fore­most, the most success­ful hear­ings are bipar­tisan. They do not always start that way: on the Water­gate commit­tee, Repub­lican senator Howard Baker began as a mole for Nixon. Increas­ingly unnerved by the evid­ence, he repeatedly came to ask, “What did the pres­id­ent know, and when did he know it,” becom­ing one of Nixon’s most effect­ive pursuers.    

This time around, the role given to Wyom­ing’s conser­vat­ive congress­wo­man Liz Cheney is encour­aging. There are not an even number of Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, but Cheney’s prom­in­ence as former caucus chair should give her good stand­ing.   

Some big invest­ig­a­tions, however, remain partisan from begin­ning to end. The House held 33 hear­ings about the attack on the U.S. diplo­matic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Preen­ing lawmakers hectored witnesses and berated former Secret­ary of State Hillary Clin­ton for 11 hours. Then House Major­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy bragged, “Every­body thought Hillary Clin­ton was unbeat­able, right? But we put together a Benghazi special commit­tee, a select commit­tee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are drop­ping."  

The best hear­ings show iron discip­line about who talks and who asks ques­tions. Robert Kennedy came to public notice when he was the bull­dog lawyer for the McLel­lan Commit­tee in 1958 that exposed organ­ized crime control of labor unions.  

The Iran-Contra hear­ings in 1987, by contrast, misfired. A joint House-Senate commit­tee was invest­ig­at­ing the lurid story of how the Reagan admin­is­tra­tion sold arms to Iran in exchange for Amer­ican host­ages, then used the profits from the secret sales to illeg­ally fund the anti-commun­ist Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The commit­tee was huge, and its 26 members ponti­fic­ated at length. The conspir­acy master­mind, Marine Col. Oliver North, showed up to testify in full milit­ary dress and became an icon of right-wing patri­ot­ism, best­ing the commit­tee members.    

One thing that history cannot teach is how to manage today’s complic­ated media land­scape. Other great probes succeeded when there were only three tele­vi­sion networks. Today’s frac­tured media means that partis­ans will react predict­ably. We will do our own part to amplify them on social media and spell out the implic­a­tions of it all. 

Above all, the commit­tee will have to draw the link between the insur­rec­tion and the ongo­ing attack on Amer­ican demo­cracy. The Big Lie of wide­spread fraud in 2020 drove the rioters and contin­ues to inspire laws in states across the coun­try to restrict voting, target citizens of color, and under­mine elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. The attack on demo­cracy is no longer the work just of a defeated pres­id­ent or his flop-sweat acolytes like Rudolph Giuliani, but cool profes­sion­als who see a path to steal the next elec­tion and deny voters their say.   

By all accounts the commit­tee is doing it right. Now it is up to all of us to watch, listen, and shout from the hill­tops about the assault on Amer­ican demo­cracy and the threats to come.