Variety called the Senate Watergate hearings in summer 1973 “the hottest daytime soap opera,” and the phrase was apt. The proceedings scored high ratings and were full of bombshell revelations.
It’s presumptuous to make the same comparisons of now to then, but former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday is being talked up as if it has the makings of past moments of high drama in the congressional hearing room. He could turn out to say not much that is not already known, or not much at all, but the networks are prepared to capture the moment as if this is the latest chapter in an unfolding mystery.
Here are some past moments where congressional testimony captivated audiences and have been left to the history books.
Joseph Welch vs. Joe McCarthy, Army-McCarthy hearings, June 9, 1954: Senator Joseph McCarthy, having just reached his peak of influence as a red baiter, himself was put under investigation for his counsel Roy Cohn’s efforts to seek special Army treatment for an associate, David Schine. McCarthy charged that it was the Army’s way of getting back at him for investigating Communist infiltration in the service. Variety complained that the hearings, covered gavel-to-gavel on ABC and DuMont (a now defunct network), was getting so “bogged down in detail and verbal red tape” that “you watch ’em and forget ’em,” but at least “they take your mind off the H-bomb for an hour or so.”
That changed on June 9, when “the dry witted, little talking Bostonian,” Joseph Welch, chief counsel for the Army, confronted McCarthy to produce a list of Army subversives, and McCarthy in turn began to attack one of the young lawyers at Welch’s firm as a suspected Communist.
“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Welch said, in one of the most memorable moments of the early days of television. McCarthy never recovered.
John Dean, Watergate hearings, June 25-29, 1973: Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel, gave a seven hour opening statement to the Senate Watergate committee where he laid out the inner workings of a covert administration intelligence gathering unit and implicated the top echelon of the White House, including Nixon himself, in the Watergate break in. The testimony went on for a week, and was perhaps most memorable when Dean relayed a conversation in which he told Nixon that there was a “cancer” growing on the presidency.
Variety’s big interest in Dean’s cooperation with the Senate Watergate committee was his submission of a Nixon White House “enemies” list, including news personalities like Daniel Schorr, celebrities like Paul Newman and Gregory Peck, and United Artists chieftain Arnold Picker.
As potentially damaging as Dean’s testimony was, it wasn’t until the next month that the Senate committee discovered a way for it to be corroborated. That was when Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield testified about the existence of a White House taping system, a development that ultimately would prove fatal to Nixon’s presidency.
Oliver North, Iran-Contra hearings, July 7-10, 1987: North was a key architect of a scheme to sell arms to Iran, and then divert the profits to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. It was illegal, but dressed in a military uniform and invoking patriotic duty, his testimony instead made him not a villain to many viewers, but a “national hero,” in the words of one of the lawyers on the Senate committee.
His testimony proved to be such a sensation that a group of pranksters altered the Hollywood sign to read, “OLLYWOOD,” with the culprits saying that it was a statement on how he had been embraced as a hero, even though they were not condoning what he did.
North tried to parlay his fame into a Senate bid in Virginia in 1994, but he lost to Chuck Robb. He most recently hosted a show for Fox News.
Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, Oct. 11, 1991: Thomas was sailing through his confirmation hearings in the Supreme Court until the word of Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment made it to the media. His confirmation hearings were reopened, as Hill testified of instances where he made sexually explicit remarks to her. Thomas denied her claims, calling the proceedings that had transpired a “high-tech lynching.”
Thomas was confirmed, but it did not end the debate over who was telling the truth. The next year, a record number of women were elected to the Senate, and one of the winners, Barbara Boxer of California, has credited Hill’s testimony for triggering a backlash against a male-dominated congressional power structure.
Ken Starr, Clinton impeachment hearings, Nov. 19, 1998: Special prosecutor Ken Starr offers a 132-minute statement before the House Judiciary Committee to claim that he uncovered “substantial and credible evidence of serious legal wrong doing by the president.” Clinton was impeached by the House the next month, but acquitted in a Senate trial the following February.
Hillary Clinton, Benghazi hearings, Oct. 22, 2015: Clinton faced 11 hours of questioning from the House Select Committee on Benghazi, in hearings where many pundits deemed her the winner because she emerged unscathed. She even cited the experience when the issue of a 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya came up on the campaign trail.