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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.