Leon Neyfakh is the host of the Fiasco podcast and the co-creator of Slow Burn
Every once in a while, I hear someone make a joke about how the writers on this season of American history have gone crazy, abandoning all restraint in favour of implausible plot twists, over-the-top characters and absurd digressions. The joke, of course, is that there is no creative mastermind in charge of crafting our reality – the drama is writing itself.
And yet, when it comes to the subject of Donald Trump’s possible impeachment, the rules and conventions of effective storytelling are salient, and possibly even determinative. For those of us watching from home, it’s worth keeping in mind that narrative technique is not just something historians and film producers will be employing in the future to render our era in the form of books and movies – it’s a force that asserts itself in real time, and has the power to shape events.
I say this as someone who has produced three podcasts about world-changing political controversy: one about Watergate; one about the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and one about the 2000 Florida recount. What I’ve learned is that Mr. Trump did not invent the idea of politics as reality television – and that often, the facts that make for a good story years down the line are the same ones that pushed history forward in the first place.
Take Richard Nixon’s infamous White House tapes, whose existence was revealed in theatrical fashion by Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield during the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings. The tapes, which were recorded using a voice-activated device that Mr. Butterfield had helped install in the Oval Office, promised to settle months of conflicting claims regarding Mr. Nixon’s role in the Watergate cover-up. But what made the tapes even more tantalizing was Mr. Nixon’s adamant refusal to give them up when Congress asked to hear them.
Imagine it: a secret cache of private conversations involving the president of the United States. Personally, as a sucker for gossip, I would have thought about nothing else once the prospect of their release was dangled in front of me – and it would have been difficult to assume anything but the worst regarding their contents once it became clear how desperate Mr. Nixon was to block their release.
In this way, the tapes were a potent plot element and they came to represent everything that was unknown – but, crucially, knowable – about Watergate. Eventually, the intense curiosity and suspicion they inspired helped bring Mr. Nixon down.
There’s a reason, I think, that his support started to collapse after he ousted Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox for insisting on hearing the secret tapes as part of his investigation. People identified with Mr. Cox – they wanted to know what was on those tapes, too, and they weren’t on board with Mr. Nixon’s attempts to stop them from finding out.
If the story of the Nixon tapes is a testament to the power of suspense, the 445-page report from 1998 that submitted “substantial and credible information that President William Jefferson Clinton committed acts that may constitute grounds for an impeachment” is a master class in the deployment of vivid details.
While I won’t repeat them here, readers who remember living through Mr. Clinton’s impeachment will surely remember some of the gruesome particulars about the then-president’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky that Ken Starr decided to include in his report to Congress. While Mr. Clinton was not, in the end, ousted from office, his public image was permanently altered by the highly graphic – and more to the point, specific – descriptions that Mr. Starr and his team provided.
Approximately one year later, when George W. Bush campaigned for president on a message of restoring dignity to the Oval Office, it resonated – and forced Al Gore to distance himself from Mr. Clinton – in part because voters could not unsee what Mr. Starr had told them about his target.
At the time, Mr. Starr justified the inclusion of that explicit material by saying it was necessary to legally prove that Mr. Clinton had perjured himself. But the details served a political – and narrative – purpose too. An abstract, vague summary of Mr. Clinton’s relationship with Ms. Lewinsky would not have left remotely the same mark on Mr. Clinton’s presidency – or on history.
That distinction between legal relevance and political impact came up again after the 2000 election between Mr. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Mr. Gore, ended with a statistical tie in the state of Florida. As the recount process that was supposed to resolve the deadlock revved into action on Nov. 8, both sides cast about for the best arguments they could make in support of their candidate.
As I document on my podcast Fiasco, Democrats initially believed that their best shot on goal in the opening days of the process centred on something known as the “butterfly ballot.” The voting form used in Florida’s Palm Beach County had been designed such that some elderly Gore voters – more than enough to overcome Mr. Bush’s minuscule lead in the state – had accidentally voted for the right-wing Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
It was an elegantly tragic story, particularly since Mr. Buchanan had been accused of anti-Semitism during the campaign, and many of the Palm Beach voters who were worried they’d unintentionally voted for him were Jewish. And while it turned out to be legally insignificant – there was no remedy for the problem, and no way for the lost Gore votes to be given back to him – the butterfly ballot became an instantly iconic symbol of everything that had gone wrong in Florida.
And, as close observers of the recount learned over the course of those 36 days, there was a lot that went wrong in Florida – but most of it was quite bureaucratic in nature and difficult for Democratic spokespeople to explain with any flair or emotion. The butterfly ballot, on the other hand, was easy to understand, and it provided Mr. Gore a strong basis on which to keep fighting what was otherwise an uphill battle. Roughly 20 years later, the butterfly ballot is still the main thing most people remember about the 2000 election.
Which brings us to Mr. Trump, a political figure whose instinctive feel for suspense, spectacle and phrasing has made him a permanent resident in all of our brains. Over the course of his almost three years as President, the former host of The Apprentice has demonstrated an ability to prevail upon damning allegations, strangling them in the cradle while hanging all kinds of impossibly sticky story lines and conspiracy theories around the necks of his political opponents.
Over the past week, however, Mr. Trump’s skills on both these fronts have been tested, as his attempts to sink Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden with accusations of impropriety have instead opened the door to his own impeachment.
One way to understand how this happened: Mr. Trump took what had been a devilishly tricky and sprawling narrative about election interference and collusion – one that special counsel Robert Mueller struggled to effectively explain in his 448-page report – and boiled it down to one brief, secret phone call. As Mr. Trump probably knows, it makes for a damn powerful story.
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