Most days, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the closest thing to courtroom drama you’ll get is a rerun of “Law & Order” or “Judge Judy.” On Thursday there was a different kind of drama: The very real, very high-stakes kind, as former FBI director James Comey testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the circumstances leading up to his firing — a firing that could have massive consequences for the President of the United States, Donald Trump.
A Congressional hearing is, at least on some level, an attempt to understand the truth. Television did not at first seem like the right place for it. As the anticipation of the testimony ramped up, it was not hard to see something a little unsavory in it. This isn’t “Scandal,” one might argue: Viewer anticipation about what “characters” are going to do onscreen is unseemly, especially when the fate of our nation hinges on what comes out of the testimony.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a more unanimous show of support for this particularly American drama than the fact that nearly every network ran it commercial-free, and that viewers were glued to it with the intensity usually reserved for plot twists on “Game of Thrones.” Even broadcast nets carried the hearings live, cutting into daytime programming for a solid three-hour block.
And the fact that our current president is himself a former reality TV star made Thursday’s televised testimony seem like the apt medium for addressing his administration’s possible obstruction of justice; where “The Apprentice” used sound effects, camera angles, and editing to create drama out of a banal corporate boardroom, the Comey hearing was a minimally manipulated live feed pointed directly and unflinchingly at the former director’s face. There was no room for maneuvering, literally: Comey sat still, and the camera stared at him, for almost three hours straight. The only interruption was when he stood up, raised his right hand, and swore to tell the truth.
The contrast between Trump on TV and Comey on TV could not have been more clear except for, the preponderance of white men in suits sitting at heavy wooden desks. (A nice piece of symmetry: In “The Apprentice,” Trump sat at a boardroom desk while contestants waited to be judged. In Comey’s hearings, Comey sat at a desk and waited for a panel of senators to judge him.) But even that similarity underscored the message of the Comey hearings: These are two men made of entirely different stuff. One is desperate to distract you, and has a track record of falsehoods, gloss, and coverup. The other is so unbending in his careful and methodical reasoning that he has managed to alienate both American political parties in the space of just one year.
What may rankle Trump more than any revelations from the testimony is that Comey’s television blew Trump’s right out of the water. Its simplicity and restraint conveyed elegance — the type of grace that comes from unshakable faith in the justice system and the tenets on which America is founded. As a protagonist, of sorts, Comey was relatable and believable: His actions so rarely followed a party line that it was hard to see him as anything besides a grave, exhausted man sitting before the senators. The testimony was gripping, because it was so precise and carefully worded — quite the opposite of Trump’s knee-jerk tweets, which were cited in the room as an indication of the president’s state of mind. Comey’s prewritten statement to the senators was praised, from both sides of the aisle, for its thorough, candid writing. The questions, even when antagonistic, were civil, and Comey displayed admirable calm throughout.
His testimony even had its moments of surreal beauty. The tension awkwardly broke, once or twice, to reveal humor: In response to a question from Sen. Angus King, Comey said he wished he’d kept his dinner plans with his wife instead of dining with the president. A ripple of laughter broke over a room that was otherwise punctuated mostly by the sound of clicking and whirring camera shutters. It was as if the room — this much-scrutinized moment in time and space — was forging a tenuous sense of American fellowship around the idea that the principled truth exists, and moreover, that it matters. More than drama or character, it was that sense of faith and investment in America that drew our collective attention.
This was not Donald Trump’s America. That fellowship cannot exist in any room he’s in. Neither can the truth. Viewers, and voters, can tell the difference.