יום ראשון, 11 ביוני 2017

The Greatest Hearings in American History

James Comey’s testimony joins the pantheon of dramatic congressional moments.

By Joshua Zeitz

Bars and restaurants in Washington, D.C., are opening early on Thursday, the better to accommodate throngs of slack-jawed and bemused politicos who plan to watch former FBI director James Comey deliver sworn testimony before the United States Senate. His opening remarks are already in the public domain—and they are plenty dramatic—but the real moment of enlightenment, and entertainment, will almost surely follow from the many hours of questions and answers. Comey has a proven history of making waves during congressional proceedings, so it’s anyone’s guess what tomorrow will reveal.

This isn’t the first—and it won’t be the last—time that congressional testimony captured the nation’s imagination. From the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 to the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, House and Senate committees have held ordinary citizens in rapt attention. They’ve made the political fortunes of heretofore obscure legislators—think: Harry Truman, Estes Kefauver and Peter Rodino. They’ve launched witnesses into stardom—Joseph Welch and Oliver North. And they’ve brought down powerful men and women.

Comey’s testimony is in this sense an absolutely American phenomenon. Here are some earlier examples of blockbuster hearing moments:

Gettysburg Hearings

Congressional show hearings are by no means a modern phenomenon. In the aftermath of the Union Army’s disastrous rout at Bull Run in 1861, Congress established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a bipartisan body that quickly morphed into a blunt instrument at the control of radical antislavery Republicans. Prominent members, including Senators Ben Wade of Ohio and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan, and Representative George Julian of Indiana, had long been on the radical edge of their party; they regarded many Northern Democrats as fundamentally disloyal and routinely used the committee to criticize the Lincoln administration for what they suspected was its wobbly commitment to the complete destruction of the South. “A rebel has sacrificed all his rights,” Chandler intoned. “He has no right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.”

In such a taut atmosphere, the committee inevitably became the staging ground for accusation and recrimination. Such was the case from February to April 1864, when the committee staged controversial hearings on the Union Army’s conduct during the Battle of Gettysburg the year before. Though many historians now regard the battle as a turning point in the war—it was the high water mark of the Confederacy—by the winter of 1864, many Northerners were deeply frustrated by the failure to defeat the rebels and mystified that the Union commander at Gettysburg, George Meade, had not pursued and destroyed Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after the battle’s conclusion.

The star witness was General Daniel E. Sickles, a onetime politician who had been a favorite of Joseph Hooker, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, whom Meade had replaced just days before the battle. Sickles was a colorful character. While serving as a Democratic congressman before the war, he famously shot and killed his wife’s lover in broad daylight; he was subsequently acquitted of his crime—the first person ever to successfully invoke the plea of temporary insanity. At Gettysburg, he defied Meade’s orders and advanced his 3rd Corps beyond its stipulated position, resulting in 4,200 Union casualties, including Sickles himself, who lost a leg.

At the hearings, Sickles openly impugned Meade’s motives—the Union commander had not really wanted to fight, he implied—and flamboyantly pressed the case that Meade had let slip by a golden opportunity to crush the rebel Army. The performance delivered a black eye to the Lincoln administration and damaged Meade’s reputation during his lifetime and well beyond. It was arguably the first major hit job staged under congressional auspices.

Teapot Dome

Warren Harding’s best qualities were his extreme affability and striking good looks. Both got him in trouble regularly. Even as a young boy, the future president seemed all too inclined to please everyone and offend no one. “It’s a good thing you wasn’t born a girl,” his father purportedly once scoffed, “because you’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say 'No.'” As a successful newspaper publisher, local elected official and, later, U.S. senator from Ohio, Harding joined the Rotary Club, the Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Hoo-Hoos, the Red Men and the Moose. He reveled in poker games and excelled at public speaking. He played the B-flat trumpet in the town marching band. Harding was the very embodiment of Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt—and proud to be so.

The ever-genial Harding also stacked his Cabinet with political cronies. One of those men was Albert Fall, a senator from New Mexico and frequent poker partner whom he appointed interior secretary. No friend of the land conservationist movement, Fall angered progressive Republicans when he persuaded the Navy secretary to transfer oil reserves near Teapot Rock in Wyoming to the Interior Department and then, quietly, assigned leases for the oil without competitive bidding. This move, along with others, raised the suspicions of progressive Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, who demanded a Senate inquiry.

The hearings began in October 1922 under the chairmanship of Thomas Walsh, a Montana Democrat. Fall attempted to sidetrack the committee’s work by overloading the members and staff with truckloads of irrelevant paperwork. At first, the gambit worked, and the investigation slowed. But as Walsh dug deeply into the matter, he began to wonder how Fall had afforded lavish improvements to his private ranch while collecting a government salary. Under oath, Edward Daugherty, a longtime friend of the secretary, and the head of the Pan American Petroleum Co., admitted to extending upwards of $400,000 in cash, government securities and loans. There was clearly a quid pro quo.

Harding was spared personal recrimination when he died in office in August 1923. The new president, Calvin Coolidge, appointed two special prosecutors, and Fall ultimately bore the dubious distinction of becoming the first Cabinet member to serve time in prison.

The hearings were a modern wonder—the first to be reported by radio—and were widely followed in the penny press. They were, in effect, the first show hearing of the 20th century.

Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) staged any number of famous hearings, but arguably none more celebrated than the showdown between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.

A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, protégé of Felix Frankfurter, onetime law clerk to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and former State Department official, Hiss was among the best and brightest of his generation. His troubles began in August 1948 when Chambers, a onetime senior editor at Time magazine and a former Communist, testified before HUAC and named Hiss as one of his party associates. At first, Chambers did not accuse Hiss of espionage, but in such a heated political climate his charge was highly damaging, and Hiss fought back hard. He dared Chambers to repeat his claim outside of the HUAC hearing room (and thus without the benefit of congressional immunity), a challenge that Chambers quickly accepted. Hiss then sued Chambers for libel. Chambers, in turn, upped the ante and accused Hiss of passing government documents to Soviet agents in the late 1930s.

To Hiss’ friends, and to most influential observers, Chambers’ claim was implausible. Chambers was overweight, balding, nervous and tousled in public. By contrast, Hiss was polished, well-spoken and always impeccably dressed in the prevailing East Coast fashion. Alistair Cooke, a British journalist covering Washington, D.C., described him as having “one of those bodies that without being at all imposing or foppish seem to illustrate the finesse of the human mechanism.” Murray Kempton, another reporter who admired Hiss for his style no less than for his achievements, described him as possessing “a sense of absolute command and absolute grace.” He was, in other words, precisely the kind of establishment figure whom Richard Nixon despised.

Sensing an opportunity to make a name for himself, and firmly convinced that Hiss was lying, as a freshman congressman Nixon used a constant stream of classified FBI materials provided courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover in his dogged pursuit of Hiss, who initially claimed that he did not know Chambers and then, under oath before the committee, that he had met him in the mid-1930s but had no contact with him since 1937.

Matters came to a dramatic climax in December 1948, when Nixon sent two HUAC investigators to Chambers’ farm in Maryland. Upon their arrival, Chambers promptly directed the HUAC men to a hollowed-out pumpkin in which he had hidden microfilm copies of classified State Department documents that he alleged Hiss had transmitted to him as late as 1938. The release of the so-called “pumpkin papers,” which were later shown to have been produced on Hiss’ typewriter, did much to bolster Chambers’ claim and would go down in history as one of Nixon’s crowning moments.

Since the statute of limitations had run out on espionage charges, prosecutors secured an indictment against Hiss on perjury charges. A trial in June 1949 resulted in a hung jury; six months later Hiss was retried and convicted. He served 44 months of a five-year sentence and spent the rest of his life seeking exoneration.

For Nixon, the Hiss hearings were a career-maker.


The Senate Watergate hearings were the television drama of 1973. Chaired by Sam Ervin, a courtly North Carolinian who, but for his expert stewardship of the hearings, might otherwise have been remembered chiefly for his defense of Jim Crow, the select committee heard stunning testimony. Arguably the star of the show was John Dean, the former White House counsel who helped engineer the cover-up but later turned state’s evidence in a plea deal.

Dean had long been a conflicted actor. Two years earlier, G. Gordon Liddy first proposed orchestrating a wide-ranging sabotage campaign against opposition Democrats, including the kidnapping and mugging of political opponents and the use of prostitutes in a targeted blackmail and confidence scheme. The conversation took place inside the Justice Department offices of Attorney General John Mitchell, who was weeks away from resigning his government post to run the president’s reelection race. “I don’t think this kind of conversation should go on in the attorney general’s office,” Dean said, shutting down the discussion. Some months later, when a lobbyist sent White House aide Chuck Colson a Smithfield ham, Dean, who was then deeply implicated in Watergate, responded that Colson could keep the ham but should henceforth refrain from accepting such benefactions. To accept gifts from lobbyists created the appearance of impropriety. Amusing though the juxtaposition may have been, Dean fundamentally knew right from wrong; his entanglement in Watergate was an aberration for which he has spent a lifetime compensating.

In his testimony before the committee, Dean hypothesized in passing that Nixon might have installed a recording system in the Oval Office. Amid the many sordid details of dirty doings and cover-ups, that detail made little impression on most viewers. But one of Ervin’s aide wondered whether there might be something to it. In July, when former Nixon staff member Alexander Butterfield appeared before the committee, the same staff member asked him whether there might be any truth to Dean’s supposition. “I was wondering if someone would ask that. There is tape in the Oval Office,” the witness replied.

Butterfield wasn’t a central cast member in the Watergate drama, but his testimony unexpectedly threw the committee hearings into confusion. Calmly, he walked senators through the intricacies of the White House taping system and set the administration on a collision course with both Congress and the Watergate special prosecutor.

Months later, with their backs against the wall, the president’s lawyers turned over several of the subpoenaed recordings to a federal district court judge and admitted that two of the tapes had gone missing (and a third contained an 18½-minute gap). Those few recordings that the White House turned over to the special prosecutor did not cast the president in a flattering light. On one tape Nixon clearly suborned perjury by instructing his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that “if you’re asked [under oath], just say, ‘I don’t remember, I can’t recall. I can’t give an answer to that that I can recall.'”

In lieu of turning over more tapes, the White House released 1,254 pages of heavily redacted transcripts. It proved a terrible strategic move. In an effort to conceal the president’s colorful manner of speaking, the White House substituted the soon-infamous phrase, “expletive deleted,” for his frequent utterance of relatively mild terms like “Christ,” “Goddamn,” “hell,” and “crap.” Many Americans incorrectly assumed that the deleted expletives were of a coarser variety. Even with their misleading edits, those portions of the transcripts that the White House released made Nixon and his chief advisers seem petty, vindictive and cynical.

In the absence of the tapes, it’s not clear that Congress would have had the evidence it required to initiate impeachment proceedings. Dean and Butterfield’s testimonies were ultimately the turning point in the Watergate saga.

Church Committee

The Watergate hearings also blew the lid on the misuse of various government intelligence agencies—by the Nixon White House, to be sure, but also on the part of earlier administrations. In the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation, the Senate empaneled a special committee, chaired by Frank Church, a veteran legislator from Idaho, to investigate such overreach and criminality.

It soon materialized that Nixon had ordered the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency to step up surveillance of New Left organizations, a cumulative effort that ultimately consumed the time of 2,000 agents, and had the Justice Department initiate the mass arrest of several thousand anti-war protesters who converged on Washington in May 1971. Coordinating the arrests from the Oval Office, Nixon heartily approved of plans by Charles Colson, a top political aide, to have rank-and-file Teamsters rough up the protesters before their detention. “They’ve got guys who’ll go in and knock their heads off,” the president beamed. Haldeman agreed, adding, “Murderers. Guys that really, you know, that’s what they really do … they’re gonna beat the shit out of some of these people.”

Such misdeeds stretched back many years. Robert Kennedy, who served as attorney general in his brother’s administration, not only approved wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr., but also directed the IRS to audit Nixon in 1962. Under Lyndon Johnson’s watch, the FBI attempted to use illegal recordings of a hotel room tryst to blackmail King into committing suicide and worked overtime at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 to infiltrate the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a political organization composed of black and white civil rights activists. It was also under Johnson’s authority that the CIA conducted the extensive—and patently illegal—surveillance and disruption of domestic political organizations, and that the FBI deliberately tried to disrupt peace rallies by planting violent saboteurs in the ranks of peaceful demonstrators.

The Church Committee ultimately uncovered a sordid array of activities, from plots to assassinate foreign heads of state to criminal tampering with mail carried through the United States Postal Service to CIA cooperation with members of organized crime syndicates. The hearings resulted in a wide array of reforms—for one, it became explicit government policy not to assassinate overseas heads of state—and made a star, albeit temporarily, of Frank Church. But not enough to secure his political future. He narrowly lost his reelection bid in the Republican sweep of 1980.

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