Hearings and TV Work Together To Thwart Congress


Washington. -- This was the week Congress again learned the dangers of television.

Clarence Thomas darted and weaved around the best-laid traps of Senate Judiciary Committee inquisitors, guaranteeing his elevation to the nation's highest court just as surely as he confused almost everyone who sat through his four days of testimony. As frustrated as lawmakers may have been, his performance won public favor: According to polls, the vox populi endorsed his selection, 2-1.

Robert Gates, veteran of the William Casey School of Plausible Deniability, ducked and covered under some none-too-tough questioning by the Senate Intelligence Committee. He, too, is considered a shoo-in for confirmation as the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Then there was the ghost of a hearing past, come to remind lawmakers of the ineluctable power of a striking image. Oliver North, who goose-stepped his way through the Iran-contra hearings of 1987 and into the hearts of Middle America, strode out of a federal court on Monday a free man. Having confessed to any number of felony offenses before the congressional Iran-contra panel, his admittances were deemed to have contaminated the recollections of witnesses called to testify against him in federal trial.

It's impossible to say what might have happened in an age without television, but it's clear that the presence of TV cameras affected how these men fared. Consider it the application of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, part of the bedrock of modern physics, which essentially states that the presence of the observer changes the nature of the observed.

"Moths to a light bulb," said Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, when asked about the affect that television has on some of his colleagues. "There is no attraction of nature as strong as a politician's gravitation to the TV camera."

It has been thus since since cameras entered the congressional sanctum, first for the 1947 testimony of George C. Marshall, pitching a radical plan to rebuild Europe. Media-minded pols may have gotten their first real whiff of the power of television three years later, when Estes Kefauver's roving crime investigation hearings were broadcast from New York City, or, in 1954, when the Army McCarthy hearings turned the tide of public opinion against Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy.

By the end of that decade, TV was an undisputed kingmaker. Coverage of the 1957 Jimmy Hoffa racketeering hearings made national figures and presidential prospects out of both John and Robert Kennedy, as well as Barry Goldwater. Since then, with sunshine laws forcing meetings and legislative activities into the bright lights of public inspection, the presence of the TV camera has become a part of the woodwork, so to speak.

So, too, has the self-consciousness of lawmakers caught before the unblinking gaze of the TV lens. Consider the front-and-center hearings of the past week.

First, the Judiciary panel, whose primary imperative during the Thomas hearings was to avoid the made-for-TV outrage of 14 white men ganging up on a black. Consider that the panel pressed Mr. Thomas repeatedly (more than 70 times by one count) for his views on abortion -- despite every indication that the nominee would hew to recent tradition and refuse to divulge his beliefs on abortion -- and hardly at all on affirmative action, a remarkable fact in light of his controversial years as the Reaganaut chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Why the tenderness on affirmative action, particularly in light of the almost-bullying colloquy on abortion? Because abortion is the subject of debate largely free of racial overtones -- something that can hardly be claimed for affirmative action, freighted as the subject has become with racial tensions and resentments.

Mr. Thomas, following the lead of his White House handlers, exploited this reticence to the hilt, skirting around the most pointed questions with striking brazenness. Take the time he insisted that he had never discussed with anyone the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision protecting abortion rights -- a claim that, if true, would make Mr. Thomas almost unique among sentient adults.

At one point, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., provided a welcome respite of breath-stealing drama when he accused Mr. Thomas of the "most unartful dodge I have ever heard." Mr. Thomas' often bald renunciations of past positions, combined with his reluctance to concede the obvious, even left a few Republicans stammering. "I . . . think," added Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., "he could have said whether he thought Korea was a war."

But the White House, recalling lessons learned during the doomed Supreme Court candidacy of Robert Bork, had urged on their nominee the golden rule for the television age: Say as little as possible and look like a nice guy while you say it.

"Bork was a genius, and he looked and talked like one, which is to say, a freak," said one Republican lobbyist with close ties to the White House and great familiarity with both the Bork and the Thomas efforts. "We wanted to Thomas . . . to convey to the American people an unambiguous sense of who he is and where he's come from."

Which explained, in part, why Senators left the hearings well-tutored on Mr. Thomas' humble origins in the perfectly-named hamlet of Pin Point, Ga. -- and little else. At the end of it all, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., may have best expressed the --ed hopes of his colleagues. "I hoped to look into your soul," he said, "but the shades are down."

Mr. Gates' reception at the Senate Intelligence Committee was similarly -- although more unexpectedly -- tame. Nominated to the directorship in 1987, Mr. Gates withdrew his nomination because of questions about his service as CIA deputy director while Mr. Casey, his superior, was hatching the scheme that would come to be known as Iran-contra. With new Iran-contra allegations swirling about, Mr. Gates was expected to received a grilling before the Intelligence Committee.

He didn't. The spin-masters of the Bush administration again applied the lessons of the Bork defeat, advising him to say little and look pleasant. "What a [expletive] boy scout," muttered one Democratic as Mr. Gates' image -- clean-cut, sincere, youthful -- flickered on the television screen. Never mind that Mr. Gates, famed for his steel trap memory, repeatedly denied memory of ticklish events.

"I hope your memory improves," sneered Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio. It didn't, leaving the Democratic opposition stuck, forced to choose between the role of bully and patsy. It was no choice at all, when the victim was someone like Bob Gates. "No one wants to look like a bully," Mr. Metzenbaum later reflected.

That truism was manifested most strikingly during the marathon Congressional hearings into the Iran-contra affair itself, hearings whose climax came when the --ing, renegade Lt. Col. Oliver North took the stand and dared the assembled lawmakers to condemn him for his misdeeds.

The lawmakers blinked. After one day of nationally-televised testimony, the fan mail tumbled in, temporarily swamping the capacity of Congress' extensive mail system. Committee members throttled back on the inquisitorial questioning. Oliver North fan clubs sprang up around the country (not to mention on Capitol Hill). And the colonel himself went on to conquer the lecture circuit, capturing fees of $25,000 a hit and fanning pleas for a run at public office.

After federal judge Gerhard Gesell threw out his convictions last week, Mr. North whooped, "I'm exonerated completely." GOP strategists began to nurture hopes of tempting the colonel into a run for Congress.

But Ollie may be too smart to be tempted. No one knows better than he: It can be more fun to face lawmakers than sit in their midst.

Peter Osterlund covers Congress for The Sun.

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