With the major broadcast networks and the all-news cable channels carrying the Michael Cohen hearing live this morning, millions of viewers got to see how rancorous and wide the partisan divide in America has become.
It was ugly in the same visceral, nasty way as the televised hearings with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual assault, were in October. It was a political cage fight with the faces of some members of Congress, such as Republicans Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, literally distorted by the angry emotions they felt.
Sad to say, by the time of the first break at about noon, I had the same reaction as a viewer that I had to the Kavanaugh hearings: I was emotionally spent, but I had gained not a bit of clarity on the matter at hand, the venality and possible criminality of Donald Trump.
Cohen’s prepared statement certainly had plenty of food for thought about Trump’s character and acts, but that was all known and hashed out on morning TV before the hearing started and Trump’s former lawyer read the statement.
Before any questions were even asked at the hearing today, it got down and dirty with Republican members of the oversight committee led by Jordan, the committee’s ranking member, attacking the committee chair, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings.
If you wanted to understand why there is such gridlock in Congress and our national politics today, all you had to do was watch the GOP members of this panel first try to get Cohen’s testimony shut down before it began on procedural complaints. And when that didn’t work, they went after Cummings.
Jordan accused Cummings of allowing Lanny Davis, Cohen’s lawyer and longtime Democratic Party operative, to “choreograph” the hearing to attack Trump. He told Cummings his chairmanship “will always be identified” with what he characterized as part of a shameful larger effort to impeach the president.
“You have stacked the deck against truth,” Jordan told Cummings.
For his part, Cummings took the high road, quoting Martin Luther King.
As I sat down in front of TV this morning, I remembered watching the Senate Watergate hearings as a recent grad school graduate who couldn’t find a job and had all the time in the world to watch.
Despite my degrees, those hearings were the start of my real education in politics, American history and the civic life of this nation. I was enlightened by what I saw and inspired by what I perceived to be a search for truth by many members of the committee from both sides of the aisle.
For a minute this morning, I was hopeful TV would provide the same sort of public service today for young viewers.
But then the hearing started with all the name calling, disinformation, ugliness, partisan mud wrestling and endless charges and counter charges about who lied more: Cohen, Trump or the folks on the side of the aisle other than that of the congressperson who had the floor.
The fault is not in television. The people running the networks and cable channels did their job today, roadblocking the medium across broadcast and cable news TV with live coverage.
The fault is in many of our elected leaders like Jordan. And, maybe, in us.
Perhaps, we are too far gone in our love of game shows, live games on TV and politicians who entertain us with their outrageous behavior to pay attention to our duty as citizens to cast informed and thoughtful votes.
What we saw on TV with the Cohen hearing this morning is a snapshot of what gridlock and ideological warfare looks like when its ginned up by a would-be autocrat.