‘There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone...’
Why the January 6 committee hearing worked.
Congressional hearings are rarely designed to be watched. That’s why they’re typically aired on C-Span in off-prime hours. They’re usually shaped by the convenience and ambitions of the participants, rather than the interests of a potential audience.
The opening session of the January 6 investigative committee last night was different, and was tremendously effective. It reflected sharp awareness of how politicians typically get in their own way—with time-hogging introductions, with speeches masquerading as “questions,” with attempts to create dramatic moments that might make it onto a cable TV show or the internet.
To avoid those pitfalls, this committee’s leaders, members, and staff did everything within their power to convey the result of their investigation: That there had been a plot to overturn the results of an election, and that the plot was led from within the White House by the incumbent president himself.
Here are some of the things that revealed the care of the committee’s planning and presentation.
Politicians like to talk. Being good at talking is how most of them got where they are. If you have nine elected officials on a platform, you’re going to get at least nine “introductory” speechlets.
Not this time. Nine accomplished politicians were indeed sitting in camera-range last night. Some of them are near-household-names, from their frequent TV appearances. (For instance: Reps. Adam Schiff of California, and Jamie Raskin of Maryland.) Some are next-generation officials who can always use more air time. (For instance: Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, and Pete Aguilar of California.)
But only two of the committee members said even a single word on camera. These were the committee chair, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, and the vice-chair, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. And the great majority of the case was made by Liz Cheney.
You can see the whole session of C-Span here. Bennie Thompson led off with about nine minutes at the start, and added a few minutes at the end. The rest of the two hours was left to Liz Cheney.
The discipline behind last night’s presentation was remarkable. Seven ambitious politicians needed to agree: We’re going to sit on stage, before multi-network national TV cameras. And we’re not going to say a word. And they agreed to that. I can’t think of a comparably self-limiting moment by TV-era politicians.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Black man who grew up in segregated Mississippi, was the right person to talk about the long struggle to realize the American ideal.
Rep. Liz Cheney, a legatee of one of the most famous (and notorious) names in modern GOP history, was the right person to lay out chapter-and-verse on what the committee had discovered.
I have paid my dues as a critic of her father over the decades. (For instance: his role in the catastrophic decision to invade Iraq, and the even-worse aftermath.)
I imagine that I would disagree with Liz Cheney on nearly all issues of current policy.
But she was magnificent. No sentence in her presentation was over-delivered. Every word in every sentence landed to maximum effect. Her performance should be remembered alongside that of Joseph Welch nearly 70 years ago, in the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Rep. Thompson with the introductions. Rep. Cheney with the prosecution. Reps. Aguilar, Kinzinger, Lofgren, Luria, Murphy, Raskin, Schiff as silent witnesses and tribunes. This was ideal casting.
3. Narrative clarity.
From beginning to end, everything the committee presented was directed toward establishing one story line. It was this:
Donald Trump lost the election, and everyone including him knew it. Some people around him, albeit belatedly, finally stood up to him. Too many corruptly went along with what they all knew was a big lie. The only people who didn’t know were members of the mob who attacked the Capitol on January 6. Their mistake was believing the lies they were continually fed by Trump himself.
My point now is not to say, “They proved this point,” although I think they did. It is to recognize the beginning-to-end clarity of the committee’s case.
Effective persuasive speech usually follows this pattern:
Here is what I am going to tell you.
Now I am telling you.
Here is what I just told you.
Thompson, Cheney, their videos, their witnesses — all worked toward this end.
Throughout her talk, Liz Cheney talked about the evidence that would come up in the second hearing, and the third, and beyond. People want to know how elements of a story fit together. She was providing the outline, and I bet that she and her colleagues will continue to do so.
There was also foreshadowing on the personal level. In bull-fighting the picadors are the horsemen who stick lances into the (doomed) bull, not to deliver the lethal blow but to soften him up for what lies ahead.
Liz Cheney acted as picador for a number of figures, notably including Mark Meadows, Jared Kushner, Rep. Scott Perry, the “legal” figures John Eastman and Jeffrey Clark, and of course Trump himself. She implicitly said, without spelling out, that these people and others were not going to like what the future evidence would show. (Kushner, for example, says at time 45:40 of this video that he was so busy “trying to get as many pardons done” that he waved-away complaints about Trump’s law-breaking. “Getting pardons done” is its own seventh-circle-of-hell in DC corruption.)
You can imagine the audience for these hearings growing rather than waning over time.
5. A memorable line.
Rhetorical lines can stick in the mind if they’re vivid or catchy on their own terms. Half the political speeches you’ve ever heard, involve someone straining for this effect. (“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”)
But these lines last only if, like poetry, they capture and compress a larger idea.
Liz Cheney did that, in the few seconds you can see starting at time 46:40 of this C-Span video. What she said, with ice-cold clarity, was:
Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues, who are defending the indefensible.
There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone.
But your dishonor will remain.
My respect to Reps. Cheney and Thompson, and to their colleagues, and to all who have managed this presentation.
Please watch, think, and act.