By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
The incredibly shrinking public face of the congressional committee investigating the riot at the U.S. Capitol of Jan. 6, 2001 has apparently … shrunk again.
Last we heard, the long-delayed public hearings from this committee of the House of Representatives were finally at hand, with eight sessions planned beginning in early June. Yes, that seemed too little, too late. But it was also, we now learn, more than we’ll actually get. The new plan? Six hearings, lasting two weeks. The Guardian reports that they’ll begin with a prime-time session on June 9, end with another evening event two weeks later, and fit in four daytime hearings in between.
The Senate Watergate committee held 51 public hearings, over six months. Not six public hearings, over two weeks. And that panel began its hearings within a year of the June 1972 arrests at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, despite the fact that a coverup succeeded in hiding the enormity of the scandal until January 1973. The Senate created the committee in February of that year, the hearings began in May, and President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.
It’s not that the Jan. 6 committee has been lazy. By all accounts, it’s done a tremendous amount of work. Perhaps that work will, once it’s eventually turned over to the Department of Justice, result in important prosecutions. But the public side of the investigation? The committee may just not consider that important. Or maybe it’s just bad at it. No matter how dramatic the dozen hours of so of hearings turn out to be, the members are basically abandoning any attempt to build momentum in the way that the Watergate committee did, and that Iran-Contra committee did in 1987.
The Jan. 6 committee did hold a single public hearing soon after it was convened, way back on July 27, 2021, in which the attack on the Capitol was portrayed through the eyes of the law-enforcement officials who attempted to defend against an invading mob bent on overturning President Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
The hearing made for riveting TV viewing. But it also demonstrated that the impact of a single, well-scripted, polished presentation fades quickly once it’s over. The Watergate hearings were such a cultural event in part because of their length. People didn’t watch every moment. Many probably didn’t watch at all. But because it was so thorough, and just so long, it was impossible to avoid it.
The Watergate hearings also worked as TV in part because they weren’t polished, and didn’t appear to be scripted. Witnesses were generally interviewed in private before the public sessions, and the committee certainly cared about the public case it was making, but the actual sessions consisted of lawyers and senators asking questions of witnesses, rather than (as is expected in June) presentations by the committee carefully designed to tell a specific story.
Perhaps it will work! But I’m not sure exactly which audience the committee is targeting. and whether a carefully controlled presentation is the best option for holding the attention of the media and of those opinion leaders who are open to being convinced that the events of Jan. 6 are important. Because they, more than anyone else, are the main audience.
The good news for the committee is that this audience, even after the long delay, is probably willing to pay attention. But it just doesn’t seem, despite mountains of evidence of truly important malfeasance, that the committee has much to give them. I hope I’m wrong.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.