Public hearings of investigations on Capitol Hill represent a tradition of American political theater since the second half of the 20th century, when television broadcasts began.
In the 1950s, when the US had half its current population of 332 million, an average audience estimated at 80 million people watched the sessions of the subcommittee led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, which sealed its infamy with the Witch Hunt, the anti-communist to intellectuals, Hollywood figures, members of the federal government and the Armed Forces.
But it was the assault on the military that marked the turning point in public opinion, symbolized by the moment a discreet army lawyer lost his temper after McCarthy insinuated that a young lawyer in his office was a member of the Communist Party.
“Let’s not murder the young man beyond this point. Have you no sense of decency at all? Have you no sense of decency left?” asked Joseph Welch in June 1954, puncturing the balloon of impunity that had lasted more than two years. , destroyed reputations and made it impossible for large numbers of professionals to get work. Later, fellow Republicans turned against McCarthy, who was censured in the Senate and died of complications from alcoholism three years later. Welch’s phrase about “the sense of decency” has entered the American political vocabulary.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of a break-in that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency. Five bumbling White House hires were caught red-handed on June 17, 1972, bugging the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building complex.
It was not the president’s first foray into illegal methods of gathering information, prosecuting and punishing adversaries. But the crude execution of the invasion, which was aimed at undermining Democrat George McGovern’s candidacy in that year’s election, sparked months of effort to cover up the crime and shield Nixon. He would be re-elected in a rush, beating McGovern in 49 of the 50 states.
“Remember that Americans, for the most part, ignored the Watergate scandal for a year,” he tells Sheet John Dean, former legal adviser to the Nixon White House. In a phone conversation from his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., Dean throws cold water on the mood of anticipation that preceded the live hearing of the House committee charged with investigating the Capitol invasion in January 2021.
The first broadcast, on Thursday (9), in prime time, was compared to the Watergate audiences, in 1973, which electrified afternoons previously marked by soap operas, the tepid American telenovelas.
“By the time it was my turn to testify,” recalls Dean, “the audience was already up to 85 million.” “But I don’t have a good catchphrase about the importance of these January 6 hearings,” says the author of the most famous catchphrase of the Watergate testimonies: “I started by telling the president that there was cancer growing in the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it”.
Dean was the most important witness to incriminate Nixon. He was a 31-year-old inexperienced lawyer when he was appointed by him in 1970 and was not always notified of the tricks of the president’s henchmen. But he was instrumental in the cover-up actions and resigned in April 1973, when his memory was decisive in placing Watergate in a larger context of criminality in the White House.
In exchange for the whistleblower, Dean pleaded guilty to only one charge – obstruction of justice. For paying for the silence of the Watergate raiders, he got a light sentence which he actually served over four months under the witness protection program on the grounds of death threats.
Regarding the methodical calm he displayed on camera that June 1973, Dean, who had previously worked as a legal advisor in Congress, says he knew how to navigate that environment. “And I didn’t consider myself important. What mattered there was educating the American public.”
Today, 50 years later, the scenario in a polarized country is different. The Fox News cable network, with its captive audience of Trumpist audiences and an active role in sharing the lies about Joe Biden’s legitimate victory that ignited the Capitol invasion, was the only one not to broadcast Thursday’s hearing, which it also interrupted the programming of the three main open TV networks.
It’s too early to compare current audiences to the impact of Watergate. Nielsen’s preliminary estimate puts Thursday’s audience at 20 million. That’s a larger audience than analysts expected, but much smaller than that of recent presidential debates, seen by 63 million to 73 million people.
There is, however, one thing in common. In July 1973, the public sessions at Watergate turned into entertainment, when legendary talk show host Dick Cavett took his show’s cameras into the Senate committee room where witnesses were paraded.
Cavett, perhaps the most intellectual of all the night’s hosts on American TV, has orchestrated with fine humor the interviews with the protagonists of what many consider the scandal of the century. Last week, his friend Stephen Colbert, a popular talk show host, decided to go live on his normally taped afternoon show to highlight the importance of the January 6 investigation.
Perhaps the most appropriate comparison to the climate of democratic erosion and impunity that culminated in the attack on the US legislature is in another season of public hearings, those of the Iran-Contra scandal, in the US summer of 1986. The star of the interrogations that year was Colonel Oliver North, facilitator, under Ronald Reagan, of the illegal sale of arms to Iran to finance secret aid to the contras in Nicaragua. Belligerent and cynical in the hearings, North donned the mantle of a vigilante anti-communist cowboy. He was convicted and never spent a day in prison.
But a contrast between January 6th and Watergate is more relevant. Nixon committed crimes and resigned under pressure from supporters who abandoned him. Trump, the first president in American history to call a riot to overthrow an elected government, remains unpunished and supported by the Republican Party.