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Must-See Congressional Hearings Go Back Decades


Forty-five years ago today, there was a burglary. You may have heard of it. It involved the Watergate Hotel - first, the break-in, then the political cover-up, and, ultimately, the president's resignation. The congressional hearings on the Watergate scandal were must-see TV, making stars of senators and political junkies of a generation.

The recent Capitol Hill appearances of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and fired FBI Director James Comey fall into that tradition. When we want a bit of history, we go to professor Ron. You know him as NPR's Ron Elving, senior editor and correspondent on our Washington desk.


RON ELVING, BYLINE: It didn't begin with Watergate. The first televised hearings on Capitol Hill to make history happened when TV was still in its infancy. It was 1954, and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was at the height of his self-appointed crusade against communists in the federal government, real or imagined.


JOSEPH MCCARTHY: I don't give a tinker's damn how high or how low people in either the Republican or Democrat party - either party - are unhappy about our methods. This fight is going to go on as long as I am in the United States Senate.

ELVING: Even to be called before McCarthy's investigating committee could destroy an individual's career. Toward the end of the hearings, McCarthy took on the U.S. military and suggested that one of the attorneys representing the Army had leftist ties. That was too much for Joseph Welch, the head of the defense team. He interrupted McCarthy and had this exchange with him.


JOSEPH WELCH: Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

MCCARTHY: I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch.

WELCH: I'll say it hurts.

ELVING: That moment became a rallying point for McCarthy detractors. And in the summer of 1954, the Senate took up a censure motion against him that would pass later that year. By 1973, virtually every American home had at least one TV. So when all three networks chose to carry the Senate hearings on Watergate that summer, the story came to dominate everyday life.

In the end, 319 hours of hearings were televised. And 85 percent of all American households watched at least some of that coverage. Among the witnesses who appeared was John Dean, who had been the White House counsel and intimately involved in covering up the connections between the Watergate burglars and President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign.


JOHN DEAN: Well, I'm not here as a sinner seeking a confessional. But I have been asked to be here to tell the truth. And I had always planned at any time before any forum, when asked, to tell the truth.

ELVING: Revelations from the hearings ultimately led to Nixon's resignation.


RICHARD NIXON: I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as president at that hour in this office.

ELVING: Since that time, no one has underestimated the power of a televised hearing on Capitol Hill, which was again on display in 1987. That's when a joint House and Senate committee held more than three months of Watergate-style hearings into a scandal affecting President Ronald Reagan.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Fresh information tonight on the deep involvement of the CIA with the Contras.

ELVING: Weapons had been sold secretly to Iran in exchange for the release of some hostages, with the proceeds of these sales going secretly to anti-communist insurgents in Nicaragua. The key figure here was Marine Col. Oliver North, who had carried out much of the operation. He had done such a good job of lying to Congress in the past that a committee lawyer asked if North was still lying as he testified.


OLIVER NORTH: I am not lying to protect anybody, counsel. I came here to tell the truth. I told you that I was going to tell it to you - the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of it has been ugly for me. I don't know how many other witnesses have gone through the ordeal that I have before arriving here and seeing their name smeared all over the newspapers and by some members of this committee.

ELVING: North later became a popular public speaker and radio personality and even ran for the U.S. Senate.


NORTH: I'm running for Senate because Washington's out of control. And we need to make some changes.

ELVING: Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justices have provided other reliable moments of drama, none more so than Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Bork's hearings in 1987 helped turn public opinion against him. Thomas's hearings four years later featured Anita Hill's explosive allegations of sexual harassment. Nonetheless, Thomas made it, and Bork did not.

Other than that, there has been a bit of a lull in recent years for blockbuster TV hearings on Capitol Hill. But then came the hearings for former FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions this month. Nearly 20 million viewers watched the Comey testimony alone. That was more than watched the NBA basketball finals. This could be a short-lived trend. Or the heyday of the televised hearing may be making a comeback. Stay tuned. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.