Washington edgy ahead of James Comey's testimony in Russia probe: A look back at previous high-drama Senate hearings

Washington knows how to do big hearings — even Titanic ones. Dramatic congressional hearings are something of an art form, a rite of democracy carefully crafted for the cameras.  Suspense is building as former FBI Director James Comey prepares to claim the microphone Thursday in an austere, modern hearing room of the Hart Senate Office Building. He is to testify about his dealings with President Donald Trump and the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's connections with Russia.

But as stated earlier, this is not the first and only hearing to come of the capital of the United States of America. A look at past high-drama hearings:

Eleven hours

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the House Benghazi Committee. AP

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the House Benghazi Committee. AP

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's marathon grilling before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October 2015 was her moment — an extremely long moment — to push back against critics' suggestions that her State Department failed to protect US diplomats in Libya before the 2012 attack that killed four Americans. In hours of sometimes testy testimony, Clinton, by then front-runner for the Democratic presidential candidate, said it was "deeply unfortunate" that the Benghazi attacks were being "used for political purposes." Asked how it felt to be accused of contributing to the deaths of four Americans, she said softly, "I imagine I've thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I've lost more sleep than all of you put together."

He said, she said

Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas and his wife Virginia listen during his nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas and his wife Virginia listen during his nomination hearing in Washington. AP

The 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas will forever be remembered for the lurid accusations of sexual harassment leveled by a young former subordinate, Anita Hill. From the witness table, Hill described what she said were Thomas' unwanted sexual advances toward her. Both Thomas and Hill withstood withering and painfully detailed questions from members of the all-male Judiciary Committee. He described the hearings as a "high-tech lynching." She later said senators should apologise for "their malicious indictment of me."


Raise your hand

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North is sworn in before the Iran Contra Committee prior to his testimony in Washington. AP

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North is sworn in before the Iran Contra Committee prior to his testimony in Washington. AP

When Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, his chest brimming with medals, stood and raised his right hand to be sworn in at a 1987 Senate hearing, it became the enduring image from the Iran-Contra scandal, a covert arms-for-hostages overture to Iran. In six days of testimony before a Senate panel, North commanded the spotlight as he insisted his superiors had authorised all of his actions. "I came here, to tell the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. "I am here to tell it all." A jury later found North guilty of three felonies, but an appeals court reversed his convictions, finding the case relied too much on testimony he gave to Congress under an immunity deal.

Watergate's cancer

Alexander Porter Butterfield, testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee. AP

Alexander Porter Butterfield, testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee. AP

Americans were glued to their TVs in the summer of 1973 when North Carolina senator Sam Ervin presided over the Watergate hearings. It was here that Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House taping system that contained the evidence that ended Nixon's presidency. And here that former White House counsel John Dean said he'd told Nixon there was "a cancer growing on the presidency" and revealed that Nixon had approved plans to cover up the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

This is war

File image of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Vietnam in Washington. AP

File image of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Vietnam in Washington. AP

In 1966, Senator William Fulbright launched "educational" hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aimed at heading off a buildup of US forces in Vietnam. Retired generals and respected foreign policy analysts were among the witnesses who testified in the same caucus room where the Titanic and Army-McCarthy hearings had been held in earlier decades. The hearings helped produce a shift in public opinion by "making it respectable to question the war," according to a Senate historical account.


'Have you no sense of decency?'

File image of Joseph McCarthy during a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington DC. AP

File image of Joseph McCarthy during a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington. AP

Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy's anticommunist campaign led to the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 that included an outburst from Boston lawyer Joseph Welch when McCarthy got particularly aggressive. "Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator," Welch declared in the televised hearing. "You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?" With that, McCarthy's reign of fear collapsed.

Big gamble

Frank Costello, gambling figure, was a witness at the Senate Committee Investigating Crime hearing at Federal Courthouse in New York. AP

Frank Costello, gambling figure, was a witness at the Senate Committee Investigating Crime hearing at Federal Courthouse in New York. AP

The 1950 assassination of a gambling kingpin in Kansas City led to a special Senate investigation into organised crime chaired by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver. The committee visited 14 major cities in 15 months, "like a theatre company doing previews on the road" before heading to Broadway, according to a Senate historical account. When gambler Frank Costello refused to testify on camera in New York, the committee agreed not to show his face, and cameras instead showed his "nervously agitated hands, unexpectedly making riveting viewing," the Senate post recounted. The Associated Press wrote at the time, "Something big, unbelievably big and emphatic, smashed into the homes of millions of Americans last week when television cameras, cold-eyed and relentless, were trained on the Kefauver Crime hearings."

Teapot tempest

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This one looked to be a snoozer. The Senate in 1922 set out to investigate a secret deal involving the interior secretary and a lease for the US naval petroleum reserve at Wyoming's Teapot Dome. The inquiry looked to be so tedious that a junior member of the minority, Montana Democrat Thomas Walsh, was named the chairman. But the hearings uncovered shady dealings that made Albert Fall the first former cabinet officer to go to prison and turned Walsh into a national hero, according to an account posted on the Senate's website.

Truly Titanic

In April 1912, a special Senate subcommittee investigating the sinking of the Titanic met first at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, then in the new caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building. In all, 82 witnesses testified about ice warnings ignored, lifeboat shortages and other failings. The hearings ended with Senator William Smith of Maine heading back to New York to interview crew on the Titanic's sister ship, Olympic. The hearing transcripts stretched to 1,100 pages and were reprinted in 1988 after the movie Titanic piqued public interest.


Published Date: Jun 08, 2017 05:57 pm | Updated Date: Jun 20, 2017 09:00 am



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