This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 17, 2019.
On Wednesday, the first public hearings began in an impeachment process that seems to have been crafted for our era of reality television.
Watching the testimonies of Bill Taylor, George Kent and Marie Yovanovitch, I was struck by the soap-opera nature of the hearings.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her House Democrats have, it seems, learned important lessons from the Mueller hearing.
The criticisms of that process were many: it was too lengthy, too convoluted and, in the end, too boring to convince Americans of the president’s wrongdoing.
And so the war over optics has shifted.
First, the wise decision to act swiftly. Rather than a drawn-out, process-obsessed approach, the Intelligence Committee has moved, in a matter of weeks, to bring the matter onto television.
Second, Democrats have changed the cast of characters. The unfortunate reality of the Mueller hearings was that their main witness, the special counsel, was unconvincing, overly cautious and boring.
Over the coming weeks, Mueller will be replaced by diplomats, civil servants and security officials. Some more colourful than others. Some more persuasive. But there will be enough of them, with enough years of service and individual and collective credibility to dispense with the trope of a “deep state” determined to overthrow Trump.
Ambassador Yovanovitch spoke vividly of gunfire and attacks endured during placements in Mogadishu and Tashkent. Her words remind us that if soldiers are “diplomats in armour,” diplomats are often “soldiers in suits.”
The arrival of decorated military officials like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman will further complicate Republicans’ efforts. If Vindman arrives in uniform, Purple Heart medal and all, it will surely not be lost on the reality TV president.
And, third, there is another substantive shift, one designed to tightly control the narrative. Watch for the democrats to avoid secondary characters like Rudy Giuliani in order to focus on the star of the show, Donald Trump.
Finally, another clever tactic. No more Latin.
After months of “quid pro quo,” Democrats have swapped the phrase for “extortion” and “bribery.” Simple, clear and perhaps most importantly, eye-catching as a chyron on CNN or MSNBC.
Donald Trump has caught wise to the Democrats’ strategy and has, in turn, worked to emphasize that the hearings are simply too dull to deserve Americans’ attention, going so far as to say he has not watched one minute of the hearings.
Republicans, including the president’s son and leading members of Congress, have piled on and roundly described the first hearing as “boring,” uninteresting and a “#Snoozefest.”
Journalists and media networks have taken the bait, publishing headlines that focus on process rather than the substance of the testimony.
“Consequential, but dull: Trump impeachment hearings begin without a bang,” announced Reuters, while NBC News declared, “Plenty of substance but little drama on first day of impeachment hearings.”
True, most of the testimony had already been divulged in closed sessions. And, to be sure, there were fewer fireworks than we saw in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh or even the 40-day Benghazi hearings. But of all things to say about the opening sessions of only the fourth presidential impeachment proceedings in U.S. history, is “boring” really a newsworthy one?
To be sure, it’s important for the proceedings to draw Americans’ interest. Otherwise, what effect will they have outside the D.C. Beltway?
But it is not the job of Adam Schiff or anyone else in Congress for that matter, to entertain. Impeachment, as much as it may feel like one, is not a reality show. It is a crucial, albeit often tedious, process of gathering, evaluating and sharing evidence.
Of course 24-hour television and social media have brought greater spectacle to politics. Some commentators pilloried Reuters and NBC for their flippant headlines, arguing that “journalists wanting more entertainment in politics, is what gave us Donald Trump.”
But the fact remains that spectacle should be the by-product, not the purpose of this most solemn and consequential of political acts. Otherwise, our democracies face the same fate as the declining Roman republic, in which voters were placated not with serious governance, but panem et circenses — bread and circuses.
In the era of reality television, streamed to your mobile 24 hours a day, that is the most frightening reality of all.