The august group with a weighty name, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, held its first televised hearing on May 17, 1973. Four days later, my sister graduated from high school.
One event had no connection to the other, and that’s rather the point.
In Washington, a jowly North Carolinian named Sam Ervin chaired the committee that looked into the campaign practices and finances of the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon.
Sen. Ervin proved one of those characters uniquely suited to the television role he would play, telling a witness that “an honest man is the noblest work of God” and diminishing his own credentials as “just an ol’ country lawyer,” though he had an Ivy League education.
(A friend had introduced him to a North Carolina audience, Ervin noted at one point, “and he said I was a graduate of Harvard Law School, but thank God nobody would ever suspect it.”)
As that first hearing sent ripples across history, my mother would be fussing over arrangements for out-of-town visitors for my sister’s celebration. It would be the same with families all over our community and all over the country.
In short, the hearings that would bring low the Nixon presidency, the hearings that shaped the curriculum of my current events class in the upcoming fall, my senior year, stood in the context of normal American life.
Nixon’s presidency ended in resignation 449 days after the start of these hearings, and births, deaths, weddings, graduations and other landmark occasions continued.
The same will happen this week, as the public portion of the impeachment process involving President Donald J. Trump begins. Only some critical things have changed.
For one, the media landscape has shifted. And it’s not just that social media apps have given an instantaneous forum to anyone with an opinion that can carelessly be disseminated as fact.
Rather, cable channels have developed personalities and formats to feed ideological constituencies, and those constituencies feed the channels, and the channels again feed the constituencies, and into dogmatic infinity.
Newspapers have done some of the best journalism in decades despite swimming upstream against economic and political currents. That work, however, gets diminished in this new media climate, where the “fake news” slanders suggest everyone has taken a side.
Everyone has not taken a side. At least some have not. And good for those who, quaint as the idea sounds, want to actually hear the evidence, fully and faithfully submitted, before deciding guilt or innocence.
Transcripts of testimony tell plenty. Read them, please. But people, in the most human of instincts, like to hear the words come from a mouth, a mouth under oath, a mouth that can, in its slightest pauses and inflections, reveal a trustworthiness or mendacity.
Much of this will unfold as expected. The path seems ordained with some pounding on the facts and some pounding on the law and some pounding on the table.
Televised hearings of 1973 had surprises. A White House assistant named Alexander Butterfield revealed, first in a closed-door interview then in open session, the existence of an Oval Office taping system. A direct line can be drawn from that disclosure to Nixon leaving office.
Of course, bipartisanship still had a foothold back then. Three leading Republicans, including Sen. Barry Goldwater, went to the White House to tell the president it was time to go.
Lives will go on. But what happens in these hearings will be encouraging or frustrating, a witch hunt or an act of redemption. What happens, above all, will be history.