WASHINGTON — This city knows how to do big hearings — even titanic ones.
Dramatic congressional hearings are something of a Washington art form, a rite of democracy carefully crafted for the cameras.
Suspense is building as fired FBI Director James Comey prepares to claim the microphone Thursday in an austere, modern hearing room of the Hart Senate Office Building. He is to testify about his dealings with President Donald Trump and the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia.
A look at past high-drama hearings:
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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s marathon grilling before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October 2015 was her moment — an extremely long moment — to push back against critics’ suggestions that her State Department failed to protect U.S. diplomats in Libya before the 2012 attack that killed four Americans. In hours of sometimes testy testimony, Clinton, by then front-runner for the Democratic presidential candidate, said it was “deeply unfortunate” that the Benghazi attacks were being “used for political purposes.” Asked how it felt to be accused of contributing to the deaths of four Americans, she said softly, “I imagine I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together.”
HE SAID, SHE SAID
The 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas will forever be remembered for the lurid accusations of sexual harassment leveled by a young former subordinate, Anita Hill. From the witness table, Hill described what she said were Thomas’ unwanted sexual advances toward her. Both Thomas and Hill withstood withering and painfully detailed questions from members of the all-male Judiciary Committee. He described the hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” She later said senators should apologize for “their malicious indictment of me.”
RAISE YOUR HAND
When Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North, his chest brimming with medals, stood and raised his right hand to be sworn in at a 1987 Senate hearing, it became the enduring image from the Iran-Contra scandal, a covert arms-for-hostages overture to Iran. In six days of testimony before a Senate panel, North commanded the spotlight as he insisted his superiors had authorized all of his actions. “I came here to tell the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “I am here to tell it all.” A jury later found North guilty of three felonies, but an appeals court reversed his convictions, finding the case relied too much on testimony he gave to Congress under an immunity deal.
Americans were glued to their TVs in the summer of 1973, when North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin presided over the Watergate hearings. It was here that Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House taping system that contained the evidence that ended Nixon’s presidency. And here that former White House counsel John Dean said he’d told Nixon there was “a cancer growing on the presidency” and revealed that Nixon had approved plans to cover up the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
THIS IS WAR
In 1966, Sen. William Fulbright launched “educational” hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aimed at heading off a buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Retired generals and respected foreign policy analysts were among the witnesses who testified in the same caucus room where the Titanic and Army-McCarthy hearings had been held in earlier decades. The hearings helped produce a shift in public opinion by “making it respectable to question the war,” according to a Senate historical account.
“HAVE YOU NO SENSE OF DECENCY?”
Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist campaign led to the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 that included an outburst from Boston lawyer Joseph Welch when McCarthy got particularly aggressive. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator,” Welch declared in the televised hearing. “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?” With that, McCarthy’s reign of fear collapsed.
The 1950 assassination of a gambling kingpin in Kansas City led to a special Senate investigation into organized crime chaired by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. The committee visited 14 major cities in 15 months, “like a theater company doing previews on the road” before heading for Broadway, according to a Senate historical account. When gambler Frank Costello refused to testify on camera in New York, the committee agreed not to show his face, and cameras instead showed his “nervously agitated hands, unexpectedly making riveting viewing,” the Senate post recounted. The Associated Press wrote at the time: “Something big, unbelievably big and emphatic, smashed into the homes of millions of Americans last week when television cameras, cold-eyed and relentless, were trained on the Kefauver Crime hearings.”
This one looked to be a snoozer. The Senate in 1922 set out to investigate a secret deal involving the interior secretary and a lease for the U.S. naval petroleum reserve at Wyoming’s Teapot Dome. The inquiry looked to be so tedious that a junior member of the minority, Montana Democrat Thomas Walsh, was named chairman. But the hearings uncovered shady dealings that made Albert Fall the first former cabinet officer to go to prison and turned Walsh into a national hero, according to an account posted on the Senate’s website.
In April 1912, a special Senate subcommittee investigating the sinking of the Titanic met first at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, then in the new caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building. In all, 82 witnesses testified about ice warnings ignored, life boat shortages and other failings. The hearings ended with Sen. William Smith of Maine heading back to New York to interview crew on the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic. The hearing transcripts stretched to 1,100 pages, and were reprinted in 1988 after the movie “Titanic” piqued public interest.
Sources: “Senate Stories” on Senate website at https://www.senate.gov/history/essays.htm. Historical accounts at http://history.house.gov/
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