What's the sound of one man testifying if no one is watching?
John Dean, former White House counsel in the Nixon administration, was the opening act in the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing to dig Democrats out of the hole Donald Trump, and his pliable wingman, Attorney General William Barr, have put them in. Nothing to see here, the administration said of itself, and that summation has stuck. It’s the most profound example of the problem Democrats face every day: They don’t tell the truth as convincingly as Trump lies.
However worthy the Dean Chronicles, they weren’t shown live except on C-Span. Tragically, a helicopter crashed atop a building in the middle of Manhattan, the media center of the universe, minutes before the hearings started. Reporters at Fox and NBC News could look out their window and see a real drama with a hundred fire trucks and police cars, lights ablaze, shutting down Midtown and reviving memories of 9/11. No question what would be covered live.
All hearings are now meta-hearings: if they don’t happen on TV they haven’t happened. Even if they turn into bad soap operas (Betsy DeVos’ confirmation), uninformed show trials (Mark Zuckerberg) or failed morality plays (Kavanaugh v. Blasey Ford), they don’t hit home with Americans if the cameras aren’t rolling. Without live, must-see-TV coverage, we’re left with a CliffsNotes version of the hearings which, as generations of teachers can tell you, is no substitute for the real thing.
Despite Trump pre-butting Dean as a “sleazebag” and “a loser for many years” who did time at Fort Holabird and committee Republicans attacking his integrity (one accused Dean of making a lucrative cottage industry of comparing presidents to Nixon), no one blunted Dean’s apt parallels between the 37th and 45th presidents (and here comes CliffsNotes): that the Mueller Report provides a road map to impeachment; and that Trump might not have been involved in Russia interference in the election, but neither was Nixon directly involved in the Watergate break-in yet “events in both 1972 and 2016 resulted in obstruction of the investigations.”
While Dean noted at one point that he doesn’t believe Don McGahn “participated” in illegal activity, he also said that “In both situations, the White House counsel was implicated in the cover-up activity.” That takes some of the shine off the halo McGahn got for his appearance in the special counsel report as the only person keeping Trump from firing Mueller.
The Democrats are in a real bind. The only way to combat Trump is on TV since he is a televisionary president. He makes policy decisions based on what he sees on TV. He performs everyday for the cameras, the only president in history to kill the daily press briefing by his press secretary in favor of his own erratic appearances. Trump and Barr stole a march on Democrats by getting to the cameras first, and twisting the special counsel’s findings to fit their own needs. Changing that is proving maddeningly difficult.
There’s an argument for Democrats’ bringing in someone who’d lived through a similarly scandalous presidency. But as articulate and convincing a witness as Dean was on Monday, his finest moment when he risked his own neck revealing Nixon’s perfidy occurred nearly a half-century ago. Dean on TV would not be recognized by millions of viewers. Dean not on TV had even less salience.
Trump’s beat the collusion rap legally but he’s not satisfied that he’s beat is politically. That’s why he can’t get straight whether Mueller is a fine public servant who exonerated him or the leader of 18 angry Democrats on a witch hunt. For their part, Democrats can’t get over that the report they put all their hopes and dreams into for two years arrived at last, and didn’t deliver them to the promised land.
Most chilling is Trump's analysis of what distinguishes him from Nixon: “He left. I don’t leave. A big difference. I don’t leave.”
The call for impeachment is really a call for supercharged hearings, to reboot the resistance, post-Mueller Report, confront Trump on his own turf of television and finally expose the truth in a way that rebuts his lies. But Democrats are flummoxed. The Republican Senate is amoral and only a French nihilist enjoys embarking on an epic mission doomed to fail. It’s a devil’s dilemma, and one that Dean wasn’t going to resolve for them.
As hard as it is to quiet Trump’s cry that he was exonerated by Mueller, imagine trying to quell his shouts that he was found innocent by the Senate—and on TV.