The Jan. 6 committee kicked off Thursday night with a powerful first hearing, complete with compelling witnesses, video clips of depositions and stunning footage of the violence that unfolded at the Capitol as Congress tried to certify the electoral vote. It came almost a half-century after the nation was captivated by a summer’s worth of Senate Watergate hearings — a cinematic 1973 drama packed with eye-opening revelations that ultimately helped unravel Richard Nixon’s presidency.
The challenge and mission of that committee, led by Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, were remarkably similar to the difficult ones that now face the House Jan. 6 Select Committee: How do you take a complex, amorphous series of events, with a wide, confusing cast of characters, and translate it into a coherent narrative that can persuade the American people?
Today, though, the Jan. 6 committee faces a challenging political and media environment, one where the political center on Capitol Hill has all but disappeared — there are almost no more liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats — and the right-wing media echo chamber, led by Fox News, can offer rebuttals and defenses unimagined a half-century ago and excoriate those who fail to wholeheartedly back former President Donald Trump.
And yet there are still three critical lessons from the Ervin committee that should inspire the Jan. 6 committee. They highlight the challenge ahead for the Jan. 6 committee — but by learning from them, the committee could help the American public understand the full truth about the attack on the Capitol and, critically, its aftermath as voters look ahead to future elections.
A compelling narrative
The first lesson worth considering is that Senator Ervin and his lead counsel, Sam Dash, rejected Republican proposals for precisely the limited handful of hearings that the Jan. 6 committee has planned. The Jan. 6 committee plans just six to eight hearings, including two in evening prime time — they have a lot more ground to cover after Thursday night, and apparently not much time left to do it.
The Ervin committee recognized and embraced the complexity they faced. It decided to go big and embraced the storytelling that such time allowed them — they held more than 237 hours of public hearings, spread out over 11 weeks of that “Watergate summer.”
Mr. Dash and his team eschewed starting with the biggest witnesses and blockbuster revelations. Instead, they told the full narrative of the Nixon White House’s corruption — connecting dots, introducing characters and building an understandable story. It actually took weeks of background and context until the summer’s star witness, John Dean, took the stand.
At first, Americans complained as the hearings aired gavel-to-gavel on the nation’s three major networks (and reaired in prime time on PBS). But it didn’t take long for those who had initially complained about the interruption of their daytime soap operas to become captivated by a new Nixonian soap opera. Incredibly, over the course of that summer, the average household watched about 30 hours of the hearings. The witnesses, senators and committee staff became American celebrities — none more so than Senator Ervin himself, whose folksy style and animated jowls turned him into a cult hero. “Uncle Sam” fan clubs sprung up around the country, honoring the clear moral force he brought to the hearings.
The Jan. 6 committee, by comparison, has seemed to set itself what appears to be an impossibly small task: Boiling an exhaustive investigation — including 1,000 depositions and witness interviews as well as some 140,000 documents — down to a handful of hearings approximately equal to the first season of Netflix’s “Tiger King” in an era where the media viewing environment is heavily fractured and where the right-wing media echo chamber can run “counterprogramming” to the hearings to muddy the waters ever further. Fox News, the top cable news channel, will not cover the hearings live (Fox Business, with a sliver of its viewership, will offer live coverage).
Assign moral responsibility
Second, and most important, the Ervin Committee understood that they had a role distinct in the American system from the Justice Department’s criminal investigation. They had the ability to assign moral responsibility.
This is one of Congress’s most important roles and one that the Jan. 6 Committee must carefully but fully embrace. Congress is not the Justice Department — indeed, part of the public frustration with Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign grew precisely out of its narrow focus on potential criminal acts and its inability to bring to account the condemnable actions detailed in Mr. Mueller’s final report.
Congress has no such narrow limits. It has the power to explain and a broader ability to say that actions, whether or not criminally prosecutable, were morally wrong and un-American. As Mr. Dash said at one point in the Ervin hearings, “We’re saying ‘here’s two plus two,’ and people can add that up.”
After John Ehrlichman’s week of belligerent and sneering testimony, a reporter commented to Mr. Dash, “That guy was tough as nails — you couldn’t break him.”
“Well, what do you think after hearing him?” Mr. Dash countered. “Was he involved in the cover-up?”
“Oh — up to here!” the reporter exclaimed, placing his hand at his forehead.
Mr. Dash shrugged: “Then what more do you want the committee to show?”
The Jan. 6 committee should focus on ensuring that its national audience draws similar inferences — that the preponderance of evidence points to a plot to undo American democracy and overturn a free and fair election.
Members of the Jan. 6 committee should bear no illusion after the last two years that their evidence around the events of Jan. 6, no matter how damning, will change the minds of many Republicans, but they should still aim to shock and outrage independents, perennial swing voters and perhaps even make some more moderate Republicans think twice before publicly supporting Mr. Trump in 2024.
Country over party
The third lesson from the Ervin committee underscores the vast gulf politically between 1973 and 2022: The Republicans on the committee — and in Congress more generally — were good-faith participants in the hearings. Despite their partisan affiliation, they came into the process with an open mind. Even the ranking Republican, Senator Howard Baker, found his opinion changing as the evidence of wrongdoing amassed through the summer. He said, years after the hearings, that at first he believed that they were “a political ploy of the Democrats, that it would come to nothing,” but as they proceeded, “it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”
Baker’s Republican committee colleague, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, was horrified by what he heard from John Dean’s testimony. He told the Ervin committee: “Republicans do not cover up. Republicans do not go ahead and threaten. Republicans do not go ahead and commit illegal acts. And, God knows, Republicans don’t view their fellow Americans as enemies to be harassed.”
It’s this final point that most clearly points to the chasm between politics then and now; throughout Watergate, Republicans in both the House and Senate understood that they had an important role as members of the coequal legislative branch to hold the executive branch to account.
Watergate is ultimately a story of the American system working — the delicate ballet of constitutional checks-and-balances working to bring a corrupt and criminal president to justice. But it’s a story that’s only possible because Republicans, both leadership and rank-and-file, acted as members of Congress first and partisans second.
Today, of course, there’s a very different political dynamic on Capitol Hill. The courage — and political isolation — of the Jan. 6 committee’s two Republican members, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and the lopsided Republican votes on both of Mr. Trump’s impeachments demonstrates how hard it will be to force the party to confront actions its members clearly want to ignore.
Garrett M. Graff is a journalist, historian, and author, most recently, of “Watergate: A New History.”
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