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Deconstructing Presidential Malfeasance

 

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Members of Congress have skillfully managed the rhetorical tools of personalization and indictment, finally matching what the former President and his media enablers have done for years.

Congressional hearings have always functioned to shed light on darker corners of American life that the nation should see. And that is exactly the function of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. The Committee is made up of 13 members of the House of Representatives, with the consent of the Speaker.  Given the gravity of the attack on the Capitol Building the very day the Congress was set to certify the 2022 election, the goal was to have a bipartisan group of members hold hearings. Readers will remember that Speaker Pelosi rejected a few Republicans opposed to any suggestion that the actions of the insurrectionists were seriously out of line.  Hence, the uber-debater Jim Jordan of Ohio and a few other Republicans were excluded, triggering what now looks like an overreaction by the leader of the minority to boycott the committee. As it stands, two Republican members in the old GOP mold remain. And if Liz Cheney is no longer a rising star within the chaos-voter end of the GOP, her stalwart focus has gained grudging admiration even from her father’s detractors. Cheney’s steady lawyering has given the group much-needed credibility.

As most now agree, the decision of non-participation made by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was a serious blunder, because the committee’s work has been riveting television. The GOP’s self-exclusion had the effect of streamlining the usual rambling hearing process by enabling a coherent narrative. And that wasn’t all. The members doubled down, designing their public meetings for television. Without Trump defenders, and with the tradition-breaking addition of scripted “questions” and edited video inserts, committee leaders made a clear path through the usual jungle of individual meanderings. To the bitter regret of Donald Trump, but maybe to the secret pleasure of some silent members of the GOP, the hearings have become a consistent narrative documenting serious malfeasance and likely sedition. The witness documentation of organizational rot in the West Wing has been extensive. The Committee has heard a compelling case that Trump and some of his aides wanted to undermine the constitutionally mandated process of certifying the election of Joe Biden.  As stunning as it is to write these words, they sought an insurrection to justify a coup.

A New Kind of Congressional Hearing

Could hearings with members reading their remarks from a teleprompter come across as more than a staged show trial of the MAGA crowd?  Most, including a lot of seasoned political columnists thought this strategic move, with its tv-producer managed video inserts, would backfire.  And some, including this writer, thought it was a violation of the spirit of congressional hearings. Witnesses have always been pre-interviewed, but not to this extent. Even so, the hearings—part documentary and partly a horror story of presidential collusion—have turned into a television hit. In some ways it is a sleeker reboot of the famous Watergate hearings in the 70s.  It’s designed in short scenes that can be easily understood.

Are these still “hearings?” Yes and no. The idea of a select group of members of Congress drilling down on a problem is an old one. But at least traditionally, there was room for dissenters and conflicting narratives. Most of that natural ambiguity has gone away. And perhaps scripting and coordinating member’s comments is a step too far.

But I don’t blame the congressional traditionalists for taking serendipity out of the process in favor of building a case against the administration. At best, members of the Committee have skillfully managed the rhetorical tools of personalization and indictment, finally matching what the former President and his media enablers did for years. The full effect of the Committee’s work is yet to be known. But this fresh look undertaken by the institutionalists is indeed having a moment. We are lucky to have them to dramatize the insurrection for the otherwise distracted public.

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Our Distended Nervous System

There is a clear sense that things have seriously gone off the rails. 

More of us are wearing our worries and concerns on our sleeves: ready to offer a sour retort or a note of pessimism to anyone defending thoughts we consider to be beyond the pale. We may not witness shouting matches, but we can’t help but see news accounts where others are all too ready to empty themselves of their rage, and sometimes other lethal means for settling a grievance. The rest of us are more controlled, sometimes falling into silence, where a sense of hopelessness that has muted our former expressiveness. Chatty kids remind us of who we were; grumpy Uncle Fred is a stand-in for what many of us have become.

To be sure, the world is a mess, and we are showing a collective fatigue. Promises of American greatness, fairness and opportunity still seem out of reach for too many, blunting our previous national optimism, even among those with the advantages of wealth and without the disadvantages of the ‘wrong’ skin color. It is now harder to dismiss evidence that the game of prosperity is rigged. Then, too, in the era of 24/7 news and information, our sense organs are regularly assaulted to absorb the images and sounds of the world’s woes. At least in a metaphorical way, our senses have become distended, moving well beyond a consciousness of self to an overload of images and challenges offered by our media.

In medicine, a “distended” organ of the body is one that is bloated or dangerously strained. And its an apt term to describe assaulting senses sagging under the weight of more troubling views of mayhem, war or racial injustice. All this accumulated angst is because our media emersion is nearly total. Our senses are obviously tuned to print, aural and visual media that reflect the hyperactive news that, like the remains of a traffic accident, we must slow down and see for ourselves.  The constancy of this has burned us out.

Politics has become an American Blood Sport

As causes to this national discontent I hear others cite the present, with the COVID virus, intense news coverage of unprovoked mass shootings, Court decisions repealing a key component of health care for women, and unequal access to housing and good schools. And then there is the smoldering political fire of sedition and rigged elections, sadly fueled by low levels of factual information and a brand of politics that has become a blood sport. For the rest of us, angst comes in the smallest details, like an Annenberg study noting that only half of all Americans could name the three branches of government.

Even with our current malaise, we would be wrong to think that ours is a rare time when the stars are out of alignment. Turmoil is a given in American life. We could cite the transformative war years in the 40s, the Vietnam era, or the polio scares and misinformation in the first half of the last century.  Or we can find other rough parallels to the present in the stormy past: McCarthy-type reactionism resurfacing in modern equivalents of right wing authoritarianism; the racial strife and assassinations of the 60s and 70s now transformed into myriad examples of lethal injustice; high crime rates and bankruptcy of New York City in the 70s duplicated today in other big cities; and the Cold War that has morphed into a proxy war with Russia that spills Ukrainian blood. Yet again, Moscow is playing its part, using assassination and the theft of sovereignty as its only choices in an empty diplomatic toolbox.

Still, the pressure to acknowledge that things have seriously gone off the rails seems more apparent. The destruction of Mariupol or Bucha is as clear as the nightmares that Hollywood regularly conjures for the big screen. We are now intimate witnesses to interesting times, made worse by our immersion in media that rarely let up.