THE CONGRESSIONAL HEARING IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
July 21, 1997
The Online Explainers take your question on the investigation.
The NewsHour's coverage of the Congressional Investigation.
The inside stories on the political fight behind the public investigation.
The investigation is big news in Washington, but how's it playing around the country.
A closer look at the issues really under scrutiny by the Congress.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, you know, the odd thing, Jim, is that it didn't get started in the Constitution. You don't see a word about Congress investigating. That was later found to be within Congress's ability by the courts, which said that investigations are part of Congress's right to legislate. The first investigation was 1792. George Washington sent a band of American soldiers--1500--into Ohio, and the General St. Claire, who led them, lost about nearly half of his troops. Congress was outraged; there was a movement to investigate; they looked into it and found that there was no malfeasance that led to this. And that created this investigation that we now see today.
JIM LEHRER: Did they have a public hearing? You're saying they had a public hearing.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They did.
JIM LEHRER: Was it gavel to gavel?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Gavel to gavel, no television, no CNN, although if CNN had been around, I'm sure it would have been probably a ratings grabber, but in the absence of television, the first century and a half of American history, until World War II, there were only about five hundred investigations, about three a year. Now there are almost that many in each session of Congress, it seems.
JIM LEHRER: And television really did change the whole nature of the thing, didn't they, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: That's right. And that's what Michael's saying. I mean, 1792 is so long ago, but really you have to--the modern age is the televised hearing, Army-McCarthy, Joe McCarthy.
JIM LEHRER: Was that the first real big one?
HAYNES JOHNSON: The first big one was the Kefauver hearings in 1951 on organized crime, black and white screen. You saw Frank Costello and the mob, and they had only the fingers of Frank Costello, and the country was transfixed in this very primitive television age. And from that, you went into a Joe McCarthy investigating committees, then the Kennedy brothers with the rackets committees, the McLevin Committee, and on and on and on until Warren with the Iran-Contra hearings, and then Watergate in-between there, but it's televised. It's the television hearings that can bring it into your homes. And without television, you don't have the impact. That's what's happening at this present hearing; that nobody's watching. And I believe in the Iran-Contra, Warren, your hearing, 50 million Americans watched those hearings every day.
JIM LEHRER: Would it have had as much impact if television had not been there, Senator?
FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN, (R) New Hampshire: Oh, definitely not, because people get the overwhelming amount of their news from television today, but more importantly, you can't read about witnesses like Hakim, Secord, North, Pointdexter, Fawn Hall. I mean, you have to see them on television to understand their body language, their demeanor, their credibility. You know, those hearings had a lot of star quality to them.
JIM LEHRER: Did they matter? Do these hearings matter?
WARREN RUDMAN: I think they matter a great deal. Speaking of Iran-Contra, never again in at least the foreseeable future, will an American president, in my view, ever have a private policy that totally contravenes a public policy. In the case of Iran-Contra, Iran was the great enemy, and, yet, we were trading arms for hostages and diverting the money to the Contras. I think it really brought people up to realize that the White House has to be run in a much tighter fashion. And I think since then it has been.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, when you look back on the progress of these congressional hearings, do they matter as an institution?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, there's no question. Look at the McCarthy hearings, for example. At the time of those hearings McCarthy was really at a peak of power, and his power had had a terrible influence on the country, lost reputations, blacklisting, lost careers. And then suddenly, these televised hearings showed his badgering style to the American public, not what he intended. He hoped that he would point a finger at the Communists in the Army. But, instead, people saw what they didn't like; that he interrupted on points of order; that he was a mean, foul-mouthed man; and as a result, the country turned against him six months after the hearings ended, he was censured in the Congress and that was really the end of the McCarthy period. That period couldn't have ended quickly for any of us, so that was key.
I think the Kefauver hearings put a spotlight on organized crime and left in its wake anti-crime organizations in the local areas. It was the hearings that went around the country. What's different now, however, is that those hearings were in the days when television was innocent, was new. I mean, I remember as a 10-year-old kid watching those McCarthy hearings. We'd run home from school. Our mothers would be ironing in front of the television screen. Television was also communal in those days. We'd sit together in whoever had the TV in the home. Now, it's more fragmented. C-Span has in a certain sense innoculate us from the drama of live confrontation, and unless you have real drama going on, we're sort of spoiled. I mean, in the Kefauver hearings you had those gangsters who made very vivid testimony. One of them, who was Bugsy Siegel's successor, got out and said, "Look at my checkbook. I have $200 in it. I can't possibly be a rich man." So now we're waiting. We up the ante so that we're looking for something really--something really as important as going on in these hearings, and we may be expecting too much, and we're too spoiled to not be looking for it.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Michael, that we've been captured--these hearings have been captured by a showbiz standard, rather than--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They have, but I think that's a really good thing because there's an enormous temptation. Look at that figure. So few hearings held, so few investigations for most of American history, and so many in recent years, and by setting the bar very high, you discourage people from trying to make a career at other people's expense if there is an effort to have an investigation that really is for short of cheap political reasons, rather than--
JIM LEHRER: Just for showboating--just for show--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, rather than to affirm the kind of principle that Warren Rudman was mentioning with Iran-Contra.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, the fact that the bar is up there, that it does discourage the kind of easy ones?
WARREN RUDMAN: Largely so. This particular hearing is a very serious hearing. The one that's going on now; the Thompson and Glenn committee, it's a very serious hearing, with very important matters involving foreign money, be it private or government money, possibly coming into our system. The problem with these hearings--and I think Michael has touched on it--is that there is not the drama of a witness who produces, you know, scintillating, sensational testimony for the first time. Really great hearings--Army-McCarthy, certainly which I remember very well as a young man, certainly Watergate and Iran-Contra, developed the story on television. This story's been developed by the press and the people are yawning about it.
But let me repeat what I said to a New York Times reporter a couple of weeks ago. He asked me, what would it take to catapult these hearings to the same level of an Iran-Contra or a Watergate, and I said, it's quite simple. The witness took the oath before that committee and swore that he had received a million dollars in cash in a leather suitcase from someone at the Chinese embassy, taking it up to Capitol Hill and passed it around, and here's the list and here are the notes. I guarantee you--
JIM LEHRER: And here's the videotape--
WARREN RUDMAN: Nobody would be watching MacNeil-Lehrer; they'd all be watching CNN, I can assure you.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the standard that these hearings now have to--
HAYNES JOHNSON: I agree with Warren. These are very important hearings taking place now, and they deal with highly substantive matters. I mean, you're talking about the money and politics, whether we were subverted through foreign influence in our electoral process. Those were incredibly important, but we're also weary and jaded by these things. And there have been so many investigations--
JIM LEHRER: By the hearings?
HAYNES JOHNSON: By the nature of investigations and the notion of scandal. In the last four years you've had nothing but Whitewater. Don't forget. We had Whitewater hearings two consecutive summers in a row; and they're carried live; and they didn't--
JIM LEHRER: The House had some.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And the Senate had some. And the diminution of interest, and therefore it seems to come to no conclusion, so here you go again, another hearing, another investigation, and it doesn't connect. And I think the educational process you've got to develop a story to tell why it's important. The Fulbright hearings on Vietnam is an example.
JIM LEHRER: They had an impact.
HAYNES JOHNSON: It was an educational process.
JIM LEHRER: But, Haynes, what about the point that a lot of people have made, a lot of people in the public have made about these hearings and other hearings, that they're always cast the same way? The party in power in the Congress is investigating the party in power in the White House, and they're always different.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's another problem, because they're great hearings, and I would say Iran-Contra was one; Watergate was one. You had the sense that these were very bipartisan, serious efforts to find the truth, not to point the fingers at the Republicans or the Democrats, who say they all do it, and, therefore, nothing comes with them in the end. If you don't have a really true bipartisan sense and you don't have that now--I must say--watching these hearings--I don't know what you think, Warren--you're not going to have the public--because they're all going to say they're doing it again.
WARREN RUDMAN: Could I comment on that, Jim, for a moment?
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
WARREN RUDMAN: You know, Haynes is precisely correct on that, and one of the things that's a bit disappointing to me in these hearings--and I say it in a non-partisan way--is that in both Iran-Contra and in Watergate Republicans stood up for what was right to find the truth--certainly Howard Baker, really my example, if you will, in Watergate, and some of us on our Iran-Contra committee. I don't see yet a Democrat assuming that role on the Thompson-Glenn committee. Now, maybe the opportunity hasn't arisen. Certainly, Sen. Lieberman of Connecticut, who I've great respect for, has made I thought some very constructive comments. But unless you have partisanship, non-partisanship, in that kind of a hearing, it cannot get the attention of the American people.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think there's no question when you look back at the Vietnam hearings, that it was Fulbright, a Democrat, taking on Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, that made it work, but what worries me about this hearing is that I think the focus is wrong. It's simply on the campaign contributions that were made, and the country says we don't care how the people raise the money; what we care is what do they get, the people who contribute money, for the money they give? And that's why we've got to look at subsidies. We've got to look at tax breaks. We've got to look at regulations that are softened. These business guys are getting something for what they give. And we're not talking about that up there. And until we realize how much we're losing as a taxpayer and morally what is being corrupted, then there's a certain softening to the whole way it's being used, and I don't think they're getting at that, either party.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, when you look ahead, now, these hearings are not over. There could be that person that Sen. Rudman's talking about, with a suitcase and all that, who's going to testify later in the week, right, but short of that, does the future of these kinds of hearings look a little bit in doubt for all the reasons that we've been talking about?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think in a way what it does is clear out the underbrush because if you have a hearing that is not going to really break the sound barrier, people are going to be a little bit more reluctant in the future to devote the kind of resources and political capital that they take.
JIM LEHRER: Because they'll say, somebody will say, hey, wait a minute, remember Thompson-Glenn, remember that kind--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And I don't perhaps want to mortgage my political career; the jury is still very much out. And this connects to one other thing, and that is that these hearings oftentimes identify figures for national leadership. Harry Truman led a committee during World War II that investigated defense production during the war that really helped to give him a great deal of spotlight. Howard Baker during the Watergate hearings, one question mark I think is what these will do with Fred Thompson, and that will be to some extent a bellwether of how effective they are.
JIM LEHRER: We are demonstrating that tonight.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Rudman is appearing on the NewsHour.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: And it's solely because of your being a vice-chairman of that terrific committee.
WARREN RUDMAN: I think that's true--other things, Jim--let me just make one other point.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
WARREN RUDMAN: Ought not to be missed here. And I'm sure Michael has observed this, and Haynes and I talked about it earlier. Something that is different about hearings recently is that they tend to run in a track with criminal investigations, so you have both a congressional hearing and a criminal investigation. That started with Iran-Contra and the whole immunity issue. Of course, there are several points of view on that. My point of view on Iran-Contra is educating the country as to what happened in a crisis is far more important than prosecution unless you get some major felony involved. In this case you can't get witnesses to appear; they're in China; they're in Thailand. Others say that they will take the 5th because they're facing grand juries and so forth. So you tend to cripple these investigations before they get started because of the dual track. And that's a real problem.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. And our problem is we're out of time. Thank you all very much.