America has seen political theatre in the past but the Jan 6 hearings were unparalleled

Despite a rich history of congressional hearings, these televised proceedings were something else

Adam Kinzinger, left, listens as vice Chair Liz Cheney, speaks as the House select committee investigating the Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, on July 21. AP
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Last Thursday, the congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, and the broader campaign by former US president Donald Trump to stay in office despite losing the 2020 election to President Joe Biden, completed its initial schedule.

New evidence and witnesses mean hearings will resume in September. But, for now, the first season of an extremely well-produced, gripping TV show – call it “American Coup” – has wrapped up with a final two-hour episode highlighting Mr Trump's personal dereliction of duty as the attack unfolded.

The January 6 hearings seek to painstakingly inform Americans – especially Republicans – about essential realities many refuse to acknowledge

These hearings are among the most consequential ever, but don't much resemble congressional inquiries of the past.

A great deal of credit for their effectiveness ironically belongs to House Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy. His spectacular blunder of declining participation has allowed the committee to function as something approaching a "truth – although not yet reconciliation – commission" of the kind convened in numerous countries that suffered traumatic convulsions.

Mr McCarthy attempted to appoint two diehard supporters of Mr Trump’s "big lie" that the election was stolen. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rightly refused their involvement. These congressmen, most notably Jim Jordan of Ohio, are notorious for shameless grandstanding and stunts, and would have most likely ensured endless disruptive histrionics. But Ms Pelosi agreed that Mr McCarthy's other three appointees could serve.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at her weekly press conference at the US Capitol on July 21. Getty / AFP

As Mr McCarthy recently confirmed on Fox News, he withdrew all co-operation to try to dismiss the investigation as a partisan sham. Ms Pelosi outflanked him by appointing two very conservative and otherwise loyal Republicans – Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger – who are outspoken critics of Mr Trump's attempted coup. That ensured the committee is indeed bipartisan yet speaks in a unified voice that rejects the former president's conspiracy theories and is determined to tell the truth about the post-election fiasco and, especially, the January 6 insurrection.

That is how the committee has managed to present such a seamless, artful and authoritative chronicle – devastatingly drawn mainly from evidence given by former Trump loyalists and officials – and has outlined an initial public record of the first attempted coup in US history.

Moreover, their narrative is squarely aimed at swing voters and, above all, reachable Republicans, arguing that whatever they think about policy, the Democrats, Mr Biden and the election outcome, Mr Trump's reckless irresponsibility renders him permanently unfit for any return to high national office.

There has never been anything quite like this.

Modern congressional hearings began with the explosion of television following the Second World War. The country's attention was riveted in 1948 when a Time magazine editor, Whittaker Chambers, testified that in the 1930s he had been close comrades in the Communist Party with a former high-ranking State Department official and then-head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Alger Hiss.

Hiss was initially able to brush aside Chambers' allegations, claiming they had never met. But it quickly became clear this was untrue. It eventually emerged that both men had served as Soviet spies in the 1930s. Hiss was eventually imprisoned for perjury, the statute of limitations on espionage having expired.

It was unparalleled American political theatre, and nothing that has followed has come close to such a dramatic, poignant, and tragic unraveling of bitter personal and national truths. But it was entirely unscripted, and more closely resembled a trial than anything else.

HR Haldeman, former top aide to President Richard Nixon, testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee in Washington, on July 31, 1973. Watergate and Jan 6 are a half century apart, in vastly different eras, and they were about different things. But in both episodes, a president tried to do an end run around democracy. AP

Anti-Communist hearings remained a staple in the 1950s. Demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy shot to fame by destroying countless lives and careers with unfounded accusations of treason at hearings, until his own comeuppance at the 1953-1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. After failing to secure special treatment for a conscripted former staffer, McCarthy accused military leaders of leftist disloyalty. Yet his own reputation was left in tatters after combative televised proceedings revealed his recklessness and dishonesty.

Significant hearings in the 1970s and '80s were also effectively confrontational and/or investigative rather than expository.

The 1973 Watergate hearings brought down President Richard Nixon by slowly unearthing his corruption. The Church Committee hearings of 1975 probed a sordid history of political abuses by the FBI, CIA, and other agencies against dissident Americans such as Dr Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders. The 1987 Iran Contra hearings discovered how Ronald Reagan's administration violated the law to funnel lethal support to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Former US President Richard Nixon walks with his assistant H R  Haldeman from the Executive Office Building to the White House for a Cabinet meeting, on December 19, 1969, in Washington. AP

Threads intertwine and unravel to this day. Before being brought down by much later hearings aimed at him, Nixon became a national figure through the Hiss-Chambers saga. Mr Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn, was a key aide to McCarthy and the primary antagonist against the military in those legendary hearings.

The January 6 hearings seek to painstakingly inform Americans – especially Republicans – about essential realities many refuse to acknowledge and to break through a stone wall of psychic denial.

Their closest antecedent wasn’t about politics at all, but organised crime. The Valachi hearings of 1963 revealed a reality that, for still-unclear reasons, the FBI aggressively denied for decades: a national crime syndicate, the Mafia, had infected much of American social, political and economic life.

The FBI's already threadbare denials definitively collapsed when scores of leading gangsters from around the country were apprehended by astonished local cops at a 1957 "commission" meeting in a small town in upstate New York. After that, an opportunity was required to finally explain the Mafia’s existence and power.

Joseph Valachi, a veteran but low-level and highly disgruntled mafioso, was the first turncoat to publicly break “omerta”, the code of silence. Although he provided lots of genuinely new and valuable facts and history, the FBI prompted him, and larded his testimony, with large amounts of information about Mafia activities – especially outside New York City – of which he was otherwise unaware but which they needed to expose.

A video of former President Donald Trump plays on a screen during a hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol in Washington, US, on Thursday, July 21. Pool

At spellbinding hearings featuring this renegade mobster, all major aspects of the Mafia – and the building blocks of a massive cultural industry beginning with the best-selling book, and subsequent blockbuster movie adaptation, The Godfather – became firmly established in American minds. While these definitive stories were drawn largely from the Valachi hearings, coming full circle, The Godfather II included fictional scenes vividly reinventing them.

That systematic explication of crime, conspiracy, and an ongoing threat to society from almost 60 years ago bears the closest resemblance to the January 6 hearings. And while reconciliation may be a long way off, the truth that the committee is establishing beyond any reasonable doubt is unmistakably having its own profound impact on the American national narrative. Crucially, most viewers have been left wanting more.

Published: July 26, 2022, 4:00 AM