A short history of Congress on TV

Sometimes history gets made. Unless it doesn't.

Oliver North.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Nearly 18 months after the failed Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack, members of the House select committee investigating the attempted insurrection will conduct televised hearings to share their findings with the public — and perhaps make the case that former President Donald Trump and his allies deserve to be formally punished for their roles in the uprising.

It's a big task. "They must let the American people into their deliberations, share with them key facts and exhibits, grill witnesses in front of them, and through it all begin to build a compelling narrative of how ferociously Trump attempted to subvert the 2020 election — and how close he came to succeeding," Ed Pilkington writes at The Guardian.

But will it make a difference? Here's how some notable televised Congressional hearings in the past have played out:

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The Army-McCarthy hearings

Television emerged as a mass medium during the 1950s, just in time to help fuel early Cold War hysteria. Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wisc.) became notorious for his wild and evidence-free charges that government agencies were filled with Communists, and turned the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into a Red-hunting outfit. "He conducted scores of hearings, calling hundreds of witnesses in both public and closed sessions," the Senate says in its official history of this era.

But McCarthy may have gone too far in 1954, when he alleged that Communists had infiltrated an Army unit at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Army officials countered that McCarthy had sought preferential treatment for an aide recently drafted into the armed forces. That gave rise to the Army-McCarthy hearings, "broadcast 'gavel to gavel'" on the Dumont and ABC television networks between April and June. "The Army-McCarthy hearings were the first nationally televised congressional inquiry and a landmark in the emergent nexus between television and American politics," Thomas Doherty writes for the Television Academy Foundation.

The key moment came on June 9, when McCarthy asserted that an attorney hired by Joseph Welch, the lawyer hired to represent the Army in the hearings, had ties to Communists. Welch's famous response: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

"Overnight," the Senate history says, "McCarthy's immense national popularity evaporated." The Senate censured him later that year.

The Watergate committee

The scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon started on June 17, 1972, when five men were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. The burglary attempt "had been planned by Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy at the behest of the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP), Nixon's campaign committee," Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox in 2019. Early the next year, the Senate unanimously voted to investigate the break-in and related crimes.

Coverage of the resulting hearings became one of the most popular events of the year, as a parade of Nixon Administration officials and others connected to the scandal testified before the committee. During evening prime time viewing hours, public television showed "each day's complete proceedings in the evening for those unable to watch during the day," the American Archive of Public Broadcasting says in its history of the broadcasts. "Viewers were captivated by the memorable personalities behind the senators' table, the stories — equal parts fantastical, banal, and horrifying — told by the witnesses before the committee."

And the investigation was a bipartisan affair. Nixon was a Republican president, but it was a Republican — Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) — who asked the most famous question of the hearings: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

Nixon knew enough. He resigned from office in August 1974.

The Iran-Contra affair

Of course, televised hearings don't always bring a president down. The Iran-Contra scandal wasn't so bipartisan as its Watergate predecessor — Republicans and Democrats squared off against each other after President Ronald Reagan's administration was caught in late 1986 selling missiles to Iran in order to free American hostages in Lebanon and also to illegally fund anti-Marxist Contra rebels.

Congressional hearings were widely broadcast in the summer of 1987, but they didn't produce a big moment the way Welch or Baker had in earlier generations. Indeed, the most-famous moment of the hearings wasn't the revelation of any startling piece of information — it was the image of Lt. Col. Oliver North, a Marine who had served on the staff of the National Security Council, being sworn in to testify about his role in the scandal. North went to trial on charges of obstructing Congress, but his conviction was later vacated — and the notoriety he earned from his televised testimony served as a springboard for his later career as a Fox News analyst, failed Senate candidate and president of the NRA. And Reagan left office at the end of his term widely popular with Americans, and a hero to a generation of conservatives.

The Mueller report

The Jan. 6 hearings aren't the first time Donald Trump's presidency has come under scrutiny, of course. Former FBI director Robert Mueller spent nearly two years investigating possible ties between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia's efforts to steer that year's election in Trump's favor. His report proved anti-climactic: He didn't exonerate Trump — despite Trump's claims — but he didn't recommend charges, either, thanks to a Justice Department policy against bringing charges against a sitting president.

Democrats hoped that Mueller's July 2019 appearance at televised hearing about his findings would produce a tidal wave of sentiment against Trump. It didn't. "Mueller was less than convincing or forceful," Chris Cillizza wrote for CNN. "Mueller struggled mightily on the appearances front." To be effective, televised hearings must be great TV — and Mueller wasn't. "While he seemed to rise to the task somewhat as the day went on, the perception of him as nothing short of the perfect prosecutor took a hit." The result: Trump's presidency survived the day just fine. The question now is if the Jan. 6 committee will produce a different result.

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