Sunday, June 12, 2022

"Your Dishonor Will Live Forever"

I spent the golden summer of 1973, my first summer as a grad student, doing what grad students are supposed to do, reading roughly a book a day. But that otherwise relatively carefree summer saw the intrusion of the outside world in the form of the televised Watergate hearings which we all enthusiastically watched wherever we were on the Princeton campus. I thought back to that much more civil time last week when the January 6 Committee debuted its own hearings.

Fast-forward 49 years to the January 6 hearings, and the mood is quite different. Then we eagerly waited each new revelations which increasingly painted a picture of Republican party criminality. This time the criminality, which was much greater and infinitely more dangerous to the nation, has long been on display. The hearings will be less revelatory than confirmatory, less a testimony and more of an indictment. But, while the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee's televised hearings set the stage fro the dramatic undoing of a corrupt Administration, it is unlikely that the January 6 Committee can accomplish anything quite comparable - thanks to a combination of public indifference, decades of accumulated cynicism about government, and the catastrophic division of our country in which about half hear and know one version of the story and another half hear and believe an alternative version.

The post-Watergate mantra that kept emphasizing how "the system worked" was perhaps always a bit overly self-celebratory. But it was true in that our bizarre constitutional system did rise to the occasion - on that occasion. Today, however, we inhabit a different political universe, in which the system most manifestly does not work. The reason the two Republicans on the committee, Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney stand out so dramatically is that they are all alone. Unlike in 1973, when Republicans participated in the investigative process, when Republicans in Congress still thought it was their responsibility to serve their country and not just their Dear Leader, there is little expectation that these hearings can alter the balance of political power in either Washington or the country as a whole. Hence the particularly poignant character of Lix Cheney's courageous warning to her fellow Republicans: "Your dishonor will live forever."

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