"The committee will come to order."
It was 10:00 am ET on Monday and that statement stopped the political punditry on TV. It takes a lot to stop the punditry on TV these days. A lot.
For several hours it all ceased. What unfolded was the familiar theatre of public hearings and confirmation sessions that are part of the U.S. political process – the politicians, mostly middle-aged men, in their usual places and somebody being questioned while trying to stay stone-faced. The TV cameras are fixed, they don't wander much and there is a routine for these events that can sometimes dull their impact.
It was not terrific theatre, by any means. There were carefully worded revelations and subtle indications of shifts in this or that political direction.
What was very striking, however, was a revelation about why Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency and why he has such devoted followers.
No, not the alleged connection to Russia. It's about the way he talks and its why he stormed through so many debates and speeches during the election campaign. Nothing is carefully worded with him. Nothing is subtle. He roars, brays, and boasts.
All those politicians, both Republican and Democrat, took their time with the directors of the FBI and National Security Agency. Sometimes they took their allotted 15 minutes in full, airing lengthy statements masquerading as questions, to FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers.
Thing is, Trump, at 5 a.m. can distill the 15-minute speech of a common-or-garden politician, into a tweet of 140 characters. Watching the House Intelligence Committee indulge in one of its rare public hearings, all live on TV, one saw and heard the long-winded waffling and the arch verbosity that characterizes so much political discussion, and that seems so remote from the directness that so many people appreciate as bald honesty.
In truth, the real significance of the hearing was obvious and over rather quickly. After that it was downhill into spin, obfuscation and, inevitably, before 3 p.m. there was banter about NFL teams.
As soon as James Comey confirmed, for the first time, that the agency is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the outcome of the presidential election, the climax was reached. Meanwhile, everybody agreed on something of lesser import – that Trump's accusation that Barack Obama had Trump Tower surveilled, was baseless, utterly lacking in substance. But, really, everybody knew that assertion was coming.
As so often happens with all-news cable channels in the U.S. these days, even when there is no opportunity for punditry and rants, there is an ideological war going on. On CNN, the statement on the screen said, "Comey confirms probe into 2016 election." Over on Fox, it was "GOP pounds Comey, Rogers on classified intel leaks." Well, yes, it does depend on how you look at it. On the one hand, CNN is correct. On the other hand, the attacks by Republicans on the issue of information being leaked might amount to a "pounding," but only if you are tone-deaf.
The upshot of what went on for hours was Republican members of the committee suggesting, in various ways and with various formations of blustery words, that the media is more evil than Russia. In one bizarre instance, Comey was asked if his staff had helped write a Washington Post story. Because, well, the FBI seems to be hell bent on smearing decent Americans who happened to make a phone call to a Russian official. Or something. In another instance there was complicated discussion about college football teams in Texas, the Red Raiders and the Texas Longhorns. The two teams were being used as a metaphor to dig deeper into why Vladimir Putin dislikes Hillary Clinton and why, as a logical result of that dislike, he might favour Donald Trump.
Before it all ended, a Democrat was getting Comey and Rogers to debunk Trump's tweets in real time. Trump's midday tweet had declared that Comey and Rogers had testified "that Russia did not influence electoral process." At this point, the surreal quality was at saturation level. And, as soon as the day's hearing ended, CNN had assembled nine – count 'em, nine – pundits to discuss the day's events. Fox merely had Shep Smith trying manfully to summarize the day alone. This, presumably, while Fox brought together a large team to "pound" somebody about something.
"That's not something I can answer," James Comey said over and over again. And in that professional obfuscation is the heart of the entire drama. Nobody really knows what's going on. Put aside the obviously delusional claim that Barack Obama personally ordered the wire tapping of Donald Trump, and you are left with a strange tale of mysterious meetings in Moscow and payments being made, or deals being done, to benefit this person or that person. It's being looked into. That's all.
It's a post-truth time and we're all just getting used to it. It makes everyone uneasy, even TV pundits. And the obfuscators only have themselves to blame.