Comment: The weight of Jan. 6 chairman’s optimistic melancholy

Rep. Bernie Thompson’s measured demeanor set a factual tone for Tuesday’s unsettling testimony.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

The witness called him “sir.” When Cassidy Hutchinson, the former White House aide, testified before the Jan. 6 committee on Tuesday afternoon, she addressed Chairman Bennie G. Thompson with a word that afforded him respect as a man, not merely as an official. His tone during these hearings has not been that of a cold prosecutor or an enraged legislator. Thompson has been firm but gentlemanly. Even optimistic. He has been a point of stillness as the committee sorts through the chaotic cesspool of Jan. 6, 2021.

He wouldn’t be the one questioning Hutchinson, drawing out the lurid details of a president in the throes of a diabolical temper tantrum, but he was the one setting the tone for the day’s hearing, just as he had done for the five preceding ones.

Rep. Thompson, D-Miss., 74, starts each hearing by giving himself permission to stop it; he can call a 10-minute recess if need be. He recognizes himself for an opening statement. And his remarks typically include a bit of gratitude that his witnesses have agreed to appear. Thompson has a low-octave voice and his words move at an unhurried pace. He has been in Congress since 1993, but he maintains his hometown Bolton, Miss., accent, which is neither a drawl nor a twang but a precise manner of speaking that makes the most pointed excoriations and complex testimony sound like a front-porch oral history.

Pull up a chair and have a listen; the stories will curl your hair.

The Jan. 6 hearings have been for the benefit of the American public, and Thompson has been the dignified host inviting folks in. His tone is calm and slightly melancholy. But he never gives off even a whiff of resignation. He has been resolute in his belief that America is the greatest country in the world and that the insurrection was “a hiccup” in our history. For Thompson, democracy isn’t shattered beyond repair; it’s damaged, but fixable.

And somehow, Thompson is convincing.

He came of age at a time when racial violence was widespread and the ink had barely dried on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He has seen a lot in his lifetime and so his context for Jan. 6 is broad and deep. His belief in the salvageability of the American experiment is a lifeline, distinct from this committee of mostly younger colleagues who in their off-the-cuff moments in front of news microphones or on social media, sometimes sound as though they have come to bury democracy rather than plaster over the cracks.

Thompson welcomed Hutchinson to the witness table by hailing her courage in speaking to the committee in multiple private sessions and then doing so again in public. Thompson peered at her through glasses; his white beard and mustache this culture’s shorthand for professorial sobriety. Hutchinson, who was an assistant to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, wore a white blazer over her black trousers and top. Before she was sworn in, she picked up a pen as if she planned to take notes on her own testimony. She adjusted the microphone and took a drink of water as Thompson offered up her Capitol Hill résumé in a series of pictures.

The most notable image showed her in a meeting with President Donald Trump. She didn’t have a seat at the table, at least not literally. She was sitting in a chair along the wall. She was one of the myriad folks who are unknown to the public but who keep the government churning along. They are always in the room, a few feet away from the powerful, always within stage-whisper range. They become gopher, confidant, sounding board, conscience, therapist to their bosses who always seem to presume their fealty because powerful people tend to be presumptuous.

Thompson yielded the floor to Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the vice chairwoman of the committee, who questioned Hutchinson and introduced video snippets of earlier conversations the former aide had with the committee. Cheney didn’t disrupt the tone that Thompson had set. She never raised her voice for emphasis. She didn’t cock her eyebrows in a dramatic display of shock or disgust.

And Hutchinson offered plenty that was unsettling and terrifying. She described a petulant commander in chief given to china smashing, food-throwing, table-clearing rage. According to Hutchinson, Trump didn’t care that his supporters gathering on the Ellipse were armed with guns, spears and chemical spray. He encouraged them to march to the Capitol knowing that the police would likely be overwhelmed.

Trump so desperately wanted to join them, despite being warned against it as a matter of security, legality and morality, that he tried to grab the steering wheel of the presidential vehicle, Hutchinson said. She added that Trump physically attacked the head of his security detail when he tried to calm the president. Trump said Vice President Mike Pence deserved to be the target of a mob calling for him to be hanged. Trump, she said, was reckless.

It was a torrent of terrible recollections. Hutchinson didn’t simply offer up a stream of times and dates, she described the vulgar outbursts and the fits of emotion. She painted a picture of the grotesqueries from the Ellipse to the White House to the Capitol. And if there’s any lingering image of her on this day, it’s of a young aide wiping ketchup from the wall of the Oval Office dining room after the president threw his meal against it as his power position crumbled.

Hutchinson delivered these details calmly and clearly. The only moment she looked particularly stricken was when shown a tweet that Trump published at 2:24 on the afternoon of Jan. 6 in which he threw the vice president to the salivating wolves rampaging through the Capitol.

“As an American, I felt disgusted,” Hutchinson said.

She testified for nearly two hours, describing a White House divided into factions. There were those who saw a horror unfolding and tried to stop it; those who were paralyzed through some combination of fear and resignation; those who were already looking for a way to deny the reality of the day.

Hutchinson came to Thompson’s house and she told of a country brought to the edge of calamity by its president and his team. She narrated her story in punishing detail, but without embroidery, as if she was sitting on a front porch unfurling a truth that already feels as though it has gathered dust.

At the end, Thompson once again expressed his appreciation. “Thank you for doing your patriotic duty,” he told her. “You have the gratitude of this committee and your country.”

And then he extended an invitation to recalcitrant witnesses. “If you heard this testimony today and suddenly you remember things you couldn’t previously recall or there’s some detail you’d like to clarify or you discovered some courage you had hidden away somewhere,” Thompson said, “our doors remain open.”

Come sit on his porch. Thompson would love to have a talk.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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