George Will Why the Jan. 6 hearings’ vital task is to show Americans what happened

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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By George F. Will
Columnist |
June 10, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EDT

The U.S. presidential election of 1800 was and remains the most important election in world history — the first in which an incumbent party peacefully transferred power to the party that had defeated it. Perhaps the second-most important election, it is mortifying to acknowledge, was that of 2020. Twenty-two decades after this nation gave the world a glimpse of glittering political possibilities, this nation saw how perishable democratic manners are, even where they first prevailed.
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The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and the planning of it, can present facts crucial to Congress’s performing this legitimate function: supplying the public with information indispensable to understanding itself. The information’s importance can be, but need not be, related to some legislative purpose. Telling an important story can be sufficient. Assembling the narrative of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, thereby dispelling conspiracy theories corrosive of social trust, was a sufficient justification for the 1963-1964 Warren Commission.
The Jan. 6 committee will forfeit the public’s limited trust in it — and the public’s limited interest in it — if members pursue preexisting progressive agendas, such as abolition of the electoral college or other changes to election law. Furthermore, Congress has neither a constitutional power nor an institutional aptitude for building a criminal case against Donald Trump. If the committee attempts this, it will sink into the quicksand of fascinating but legally problematic definitions of “conspiracy,” and of speech that becomes illegal by “inciting” illegality.
Pre-television, perhaps the most flamboyant congressional hearings were those of the Senate Munitions Committee under Sen. Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, the progressive Republican and fervid isolationist chosen by the Senate’s Democratic majority to investigate suspicions that munitions makers — stigmatized as “merchants of death” — were to blame for U.S. entry into World War I. After 93 hearings, which began in 1934, the committee was abruptly defunded in 1936 because Nye suggested that President Woodrow Wilson had withheld pertinent information as Congress considered declaring war. The Senate’s official webpage says Democratic leaders assailed Nye, with Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia decrying him for “dirt-daubing the sepulcher of Woodrow Wilson.” The webpage continues: “Standing before cheering colleagues in a packed Senate Chamber, Glass slammed his fist onto his desk until blood dripped from his knuckles.”


Then came television, and congressional hearings as spectacles, some useful, some inadvertently so. From 1950 to 1951, television turned Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce into national entertainment and turned the Tennessee Democrat into a presidential aspirant. (He would be the Democrats’ 1956 vice-presidential nominee.) Again, the Senate webpage: “Schools dismissed students to watch the hearings. Blood banks ran low on donations, prompting one … to install a television and tune in to the hearings, and donations shot up 100 percent.” When Kefauver’s committee was due to expire in February 1951, protests from an addicted public got it extended until September. Two years later, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, chairing the televised 1953-1954 investigation of supposed communist influence in the Army, committed political suicide by being repulsive in front of a national audience that had hitherto only read about him.
Select committees have riveted the nation by informing it about the Watergate (1973) and Iran-contra (1987) scandals. But in those bygone days, before political tribalism suffocated many Americans’ capacity for independent judgment, there was broad agreement that something deplorable had occurred in each case. And the hearings broadened agreement about that.
Today, Republicans have almost entirely shunned the Jan. 6 committee, and the Republican National Committee has described as “legitimate political discourse” the mob action that included smearing interior surfaces of the Capitol with feces. Furthermore, the comportment of senators of both parties during televised confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees indicates that many people now in Congress are incapable of disinterested inquiries. Americans, numbed by the dregs of U.S. society behaving badly in high political offices, will not pay protracted attention to the committee.
Still, the committee can usefully provide testimony about how on that day the president — surrounded by lickspittle mediocrities and allied with many such in both houses of Congress — reaped what he and they had sown: chaos. But the committee’s first, most important and sufficient task is to show what happened.
Video cameras are ubiquitous: Even the rioters carried smartphones as well as stupid banners. Today, most people absorb most of what they learn about public matters from pictures. By disseminating the graphic record of Jan. 6, the committee can serve the nation by deepening its embarrassment, which is a necessary first step toward the recovery of its dignity.
 

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