Comey Hearing: 5 Other Wild Times Congress Became Must-See TV

James Comey - 2016 Administration Intelligence Officials Testifying - Getty - H 2017
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Mobsters without faces, ratings bigger than soap operas and great "gotcha" lines all feature in a brief history of Washington's biggest televised testimony.

James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 election is going to be a crazy circus. The press galleries will be packed. All the networks are carrying it live. NBC correspondent Peter Alexander called it the "Super Bowl" of congressional testimony. But it is not the first time something like this has happened. Going back to the beginning of television, there have been other congressional hearings that were must-see TV. Here are five examples:

Kefauver Hearings, 1950-51
Signature moment: TV could only show mobster Frank Costello's hands and not his face

There's a moment in The Godfather Part II when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is called to testify before a Senate committee to testify about his (alleged) organized crime activities. Turns out that scene was based in real life. The Kefauver hearings on organized crime (technically: the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce) captivated America in 1950 and 1951 as a parade of characters like Meyer Lansky, Tony "Joe Batters" Accardo, Louis "Little New York" Campagna and Virginia Hill testified. The defining moment came when Frank Costello, who took over from Lucky Luciano as the head of the Five Families, testified and the networks agreed to show only his hands. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had to admit that in fact organized crime existed and the FBI hadn't done enough to combat it. The hearings made the then-obscure Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver a national figure, getting him a spot on the Democratic ticket of 1956 as Adlai Stevenson's running mate. 

At a time when only about half of America owned a TV, some 30 million Americans watched at least a part of the hearings (some in movie theaters that screened the hearings instead of films). As Life noted, "The week of March 12, 1951, will occupy a special place in history ... people had suddenly gone indoors into living rooms, taverns, and clubrooms, auditoriums and back-offices. There, in eerie half-light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed. Never before had the attention of the nation been riveted so completely on a single matter."

Army-McCarthy hearings, 1954
Signature moment: "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

This spectacle is the gold standard against which all other congressional hearings are judged. The hearings were ostensibly held to mediate a dispute Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his chief aide, Roy Cohn, had with the Army. The Army said Cohn pressured it to give special treatment to one of McCarthy's junior staffers, who was a private. In response to the special treatment charge, McCarthy said the Army was riddled with communists (McCarthy had been the most vocal person in Congress trying to prove some government officials were communists since 1950).

At first, all four networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Dumont) were going to broadcast the hearings, which started on April 22, 1954, but after a couple of boring days CBS and NBC dropped out to protect their highly profitable daytime TV revenue. Last-place ABC stuck with gavel-to-gavel coverage, broadcasting some 188 hours before the hearings wrapped up on June 17. NBC and CBS did late-night recaps, but the coverage helped legitimate ABC. An estimated 20 million Americans watched the hearings, which were generally pretty dry except for one dramatic moment that has survived to this day: When McCarthy suggested that one of the junior lawyers who worked for the Army’s special counsel Joseph Welch was a communist, Welch, whose cool patrician manner had made him popular with viewers, responded, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” [Fun fact: Welch was nominated for a best supporting actor Golden Globe for playing a judge in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, his only movie role.]

Watergate Hearings, 1973
Signature moment: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

The downfall of President Richard Nixon began with what his press secretary Ron Ziegler ridiculed as a “third-rate burglary” at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington. Only when two unknown young reporters (Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, natch) started investigating it did the connection to Nixon and the White House become clear.

In early February 1973, the Senate voted to establish a select committee chaired by Texas Senator Sam Ervin to look into the story. The first round of hearings ran from May 17 to Aug. 7, 1973. All three networks covered the first few days and then switched to a rotation, with each network doing three days apiece. The only exception was in June, when former White House counsel John Dean testified — and provided the defining scandal soundbite: Senator Howard Baker (just 30) asked Dean, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” [Fun fact: Baker’s aide Fred Thompson, who would go on to become a senator himself and an actor (Law & Order, Die Hard 2), wrote the question for his boss.]

A poll found that 85 percent of U.S. households watched some of the hearings that summer. PBS replayed the hearings at night, drawing an audience that was at least four times bigger than normal, prompting the Los Angeles Times critic Cecil Smith to call Watergate "the best thing that has happened to public television since Sesame Street."

A year later, the networks carried the House Judiciary Committee hearings live as the members debated drawing up articles of impeachment against Nixon. The hearings stretched from morning to night. PBS carried the daytime stuff and the major networks the evening stuff. All told, about 13 hours a day were broadcast for the last six days of July. Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, put an end to the impeachment process.

Iran-Contra Hearings, 1987
Signature moment: Oliver North in uniform taking the oath

The basic story was simple: People on the National Security Council broke the law by selling arms to a banned foreign country and then lied to Congress about it. Explaining it in detail was harder: Congress banned arms sales to the right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua (the Contras), whom President Ronald Reagan supported. At the same time, arms sales to Iran were banned as a result of the 1979-1980 hostage crisis. Figuring one plus one equals three, Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council staffer, cooked up a plan to get a third party to sell arms to Iran (in exchange for the release of hostages, also a no-no) and then send the profit (about $48 million) to the Contras. Senior officials like National Security Advisors Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were aware of at least parts of the plan, which took place in 1985 and early 1986 and was exposed in the news in November 1986.

Congress formed a Joint Committee to look into the matter in January 1987. Hearings took place from May 5 to Aug. 6, 1987. The networks covered the first day of the hearings, drawing 42 percent of the audience in the 14 biggest markets, but then decided to abandon daily coverage in favor of evening and late-night round ups. An upstart cable company, still referred to in the press as Cable News Network (only on the air since 1980) picked up the slack, airing gavel-to-gavel coverage and saw its ratings jump some 200 percent (from a minuscule few hundred thousand to a couple of million).

The networks returned for daily coverage in June when North testified. North made for great television: He came in his Marine Corps uniform and looked every bit the Hollywood image of an army hero. Unlike with Army-McCarthy or Watergate, there was no defining soundbite. Instead, the image of North holding up his hand to take the oath before testifying became the iconic image of the scandal.

The networks ate it up. Jeff Gralnick, vp and executive producer of special programming for ABC News, told The New York Times in 1987, “The event is enthralling. This is a piece of historic theater that's being played out here. The key word is historic, but it is also theater.”

It was a ratings bonanza. UPI called it the “most popular soap opera on television” and others noted that the audience was five times the size of ABC's General Hospital, the most popular soap of the day. NBC estimated that at least 55 million Americans watched some or all of North’s testimony.

Anita Hill Testifies Against Clarence Thomas, 1991
Signature Moment: “A high-tech lynching for uppity blacks”

In July 1991, President George Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace the retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall as only the second African-American to serve on the Supreme Court.

Because he was an extreme conservative replacing a stalwart liberal, Thomas’ nomination was instantly controversial but he still appeared likely to win easy confirmation. That is until NPR’s Nina Totenburg reported that his former assistant (and now law professor) Anita Hill had said Thomas made lewd comments to her and unwanted sexual advances. One week later, on Oct. 11, 1991, Hill appeared before the judiciary committee.

Totenburg remembered the scene that day: “I walked into the Russell Senate Office Building in the early hours of Oct. 11, 1991, I had no notion of what those hearings would come to mean. The story at that moment was nothing more to me than Clarence Thomas, Round II of the confirmation process. To my astonishment, though, the building was not its usual quiet self. Cables, lights, cameras were everywhere. My mouth literally fell open as I recognized that the story I had broken just a few days earlier had turned into a mega-story.”

Hill went first, describing in detail crude comments and sexual remarks she claimed were made by Thomas. Thomas followed in the evening and provided the highlight moment of the hearings. He denied “unequivocally” every charge she made and added, “From my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. — U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”

The ratings were huge. NBC and ABC covered the hearings live, garnering a combined rating of 26.5. CBS stuck with an MLB playoff game between the Minnesota Twins and the Toronto Blue Jays. Its ratings? The lowest for a baseball playoff game ever.