They Still Make a Difference

By Felzenberg, Alvin S. | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

They Still Make a Difference


Felzenberg, Alvin S., The World and I


From the Marshall Plan to the Contract With America, congressional hearings have led to the passage of significant legislation.

Mere mention of the words congressional hearing connotes major media extravaganzas to many Americans. The phrase suggests casts of colorful characters--congressional and otherwise--a full-court press, blazing television lights, surprise witnesses, and unexpected bombshells.

Not all hearings either house of Congress holds conform to this image. Most don't. Those that produce major public policy initiatives may resemble it least.

Two that did combine all these elements were the Watergate hearings of 1973 and '74. In the Senate, a self-proclaimed "country lawyer," Sam Ervin, became the most popular North Carolinian since Andy Griffith and before Michael Jordan.

The Select Senate Committee also transformed Ervin's costar, Republican Howard Baker, into a celebrity. Baker's question "What did the president know and when did he know it?" changed how observers would regard all future investigations into presidential wrongdoing. They began watching for signals that a member of the president's party would join with the opposition to do him in.

Over in the House of Representatives, New Jersey Cong. Peter Rodino emerged from 25 years of obscurity to gavel the proceedings to order as new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Washington insiders wondered whether Rodino was up to the job.

They took him to their bosom when he retained John Doar as counsel. Doar, a nominal Republican who had served under Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department, won press plaudits for his professed neutrality about Nixon's possible guilt and for the team of eager legal beagles he gathered about him. One was Hillary Rodham.

Heroes and clowns

The heroine of the committee was freshman Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan, who captivated the country with a fiery opening statement about the Constitution. Playing the "clown" was New Jersey Cong. Charles Sandman, who denounced consecutive anti-Nixon Newsweek covers. In supporting roles were junior but "thoughtful" Republicans Bill Cohen and Tom Railsback.

Richard Nixon went to his grave believing he was undone not for illegalities he had committed but for his role in another hearing probing executive-branch wrongdoing 30 years earlier. That forum was the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Nixon, then a freshman congressman, believed Whittaker Chambers' allegation that Alger Hiss--exalted member of the foreign policy establishment, noted New Dealer, and friend of Franklin Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, and Adlai Stevenson--had been a Soviet spy. The clash between Hiss and Chambers, who gave contradictory testimony on the matter, produced suspense. A jury found Hiss guilty of perjury, and a judge sent him to jail.

Nixon's cross-examination of Hiss played no small part in the diplomat's undoing. Nixon recollected in his book Six Crises and in conversations with his last Boswell, Monica Crowley, his belief that Hiss' defenders in the press, universities, and prestigious law firms would get back at him.

Another hearing that probed misconduct within the executive branch was the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Fueled by the belief--within Republican circles and among much of the public--that communist incursions across Eastern Europe and China could not have happened without help within the American government, Sen. Joseph McCarthy began looking for Soviet agents on the government payroll.

His failure to produce culprits and the sideshow antics of his assistants Roy Cohn and David Schine (who were as disliked by the media as John Doar would be popular) tried the Senate's patience and fueled journalistic investigations of the senator's tactics, methods, and motives.

A witness effectively ended McCarthy's career with a famous question. "Have you no sense of decency, sir? …

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