Jan. 6 hearings were memorable even without many soundbites

What will we remember from the House hearings investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol?

Certainly not partisan squabbling, because with just two Republicans opposed to Trump on the panel, there was none. Congress scholar Molly Reynolds thinks this will be “the only congressional committee in history to have all of its recorded votes be unanimous.”

Nor did individual committee members or witnesses stand out, though there were exceptions. Committee Chair Bennie Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney both exerted a powerful moral presence — Thompson as a Black man from Mississippi who appreciated the importance of democracy from a legacy of its absence; Cheney as a forthright conservative whose every sentence stood as a rebuke to a party that has lost its way.

Instead, the stars of these hearings were the people who obtained, compiled and edited video. And texts. And tweets. It was the tightly controlled presentations that will be the Jan. 6 committee’s lasting legacy.

Missing from these hearings were the stark confrontations that were central to, say, the Iran-Contra hearings in the late 1980s. That select committee heard live testimony from hostile witnesses, most memorably from former National Security Council staffer Oliver North. Similarly unscripted moments were the hallmark of the Watergate hearings, especially during the testimony of former White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s ex-campaign chair and former attorney general.

In contrast, the Jan. 6 hearings gave us a committee leaving nothing to chance. In addition to having a united committee, witnesses who might have been more friendly to Trump didn’t show up — and those who did shielded themselves (in taped depositions) with the Fifth Amendment.

Another way the Jan. 6 hearings were different from their legendary predecessors: Former President Donald Trump was a dominant figure in these proceedings in a way that Richard Nixon never was during the Watergate sessions. Nixon wasn’t entirely absent; perhaps the most famous episode of that effort was former White House Counsel John Dean’s testimony about exactly how Nixon had directed him to conduct the cover-up of the Watergate break-in and other crimes.

But it wasn’t the same as watching video of Trump urging on the crowd in his rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6. Or hearing him exhort Georgia officials to find him enough votes to overturn the results in that state, a chilling clip that the committee replayed on Thursday. Or even reading Trump’s tweet castigating Vice President Mike Pence while seeing video of rioters calling for Pence’s death.

The committee’s use of video was especially deft on Thursday. To make the point that Trump knew that he was deliberately lying to his supporters (and the entire nation) about the election, the panel repeatedly interspersed tapes of White House officials and campaign aides explaining the facts to Trump with video of Trump subsequently saying the exact opposite in public.

Even the comic relief from these hearings — Senator Josh Hawley running from the mob he had saluted moments before, or White House lawyer Eric Herschmann’s amusing tales of attempting to bat down Oval Office schemes — were on tape, not live. There was nothing like the live testimony of Watergate bag man Anthony Ulasewicz or Oliver North’s lawyer Brendan Sullivan objecting that he wasn’t a “potted plant.”

None of this could have happened had individual committee members insisted on using the platform for self-promotion. Senator Howard Baker of the Watergate committee memorably asked what the president knew and when he knew it; it’s hard to think of any lines from the live testimony of the Jan. 6 hearings taking the same place in the public lexicon.

We don’t yet know whether the presentations will change public perceptions or lead to concrete action against Trump. But I wouldn’t ignore the importance of placing a down payment on history. A lot of journalists watched these hearings, and a lot more saw clips or read summaries. The basic story that Thompson, Cheney and their colleagues told will be absorbed by those who tuned in. That’s why the choices the committee made in emphasis and presentation matter.

No one gets the last word when it comes to history, and there is still the real possibility of further indictments and trials, not to mention future books and perhaps new evidence. But sometimes the first telling of the story is the one that leaves its mark.

JONATHAN BERNSTEIN is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.