The United States is engaged in a consequential large-scale clinical test: What exactly is the country’s attention span for a vital matter in its civic life, one freighted with critical, stunning revelations that go to the heart of its political culture?
In the early years of the Republic, Americans were accustomed to lengthy declamations. Daniel Webster’s famous 1830 speech about the sanctity of the Union went on for two days, and about 15,000 people stood for two hours in 1863 to hear Edward Everett give an oration that in essence was an introduction to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Both occurred at dangerous moments when the character of the country was in jeopardy. So, too, is this moment, when the essential element of its political life – the peaceful transfer of power, a trademark aspect of American democracy since the Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson succeeded the Federalist John Adams in 1801 – is facing its most formidable test.
Which is why the congressional committee examining the Jan. 6, 2021, rampage on Capitol Hill has scheduled at least four more sessions to follow last week’s prime-time hearing and Monday’s marathon session.
These sessions are in part for the historical record. But they also are designed to shape contemporary American politics, which hinge on questions about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency and the future political prospects of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who may be preparing an effort to regain the White House in 2024. And like the episode they are designed to examine, these sessions prompt questions of great significance, among them: How many hearings are necessary? Will they make a difference?
“We have a population with a relatively short attention span,” said Mark Satta, a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit who is studying the hearings. “It’s hard to know what will get something to stick in people’s mind. One advantage of doing multiple events is to give the committee a chance to provide lots of different chances to have a tide-turning moment. It could come in the fifth hearing.”
Monday’s session included several striking revelations: Former attorney-general William Barr, the country’s chief law-enforcement official, said that Mr. Trump claimed there was fraud on election night as soon as it became apparent he could lose; that the claim was “crazy stuff” that did a “great disservice to the country”; and that the president was “detached from reality.”
Moreover, Trump adviser Eric Herschmann said that he “never saw any evidence whatsoever to sustain’' the allegations of a stolen election and that Mr. Trump’s effort to challenge Mr. Biden’s victory was “nuts.” Former mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani, a proponent of the stolen-election argument, was “definitively intoxicated” as the election returns were being reported, according to former senior Trump campaign lawyer Jason Miller. And the president defied campaign manager Bill Stepien’s counsel that it was “too early to call the race.’’
Mr. Stepien also testified that the effort to overturn the election was “not necessarily honest or professional.”
This testimony prompted Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, a member of the committee, to describe Mr. Trump’s action as “an attack on the American people by trying to rob you of your voice in American democracy.”
And while Mr. Trump went where no president has gone before, these hearings are prompting his opponents to say – perhaps with a plan in mind, perhaps hoping, as Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, Part 2, that the wish might be the father to the thought – that prosecutors could put the former American chief executive in a situation where no president has been before: the target of a criminal lawsuit.
In line with the Shakespearean nature of this entire episode – the collision of fate and justice – those notions are met even among Mr. Trump’s most fervent critics, with warnings that such a prospect might inflame his supporters, render him a martyr to their cause and further empower him in a 2024 presidential campaign.
The hearings continue Wednesday morning, when the committee plans to show recorded testimony of Mr. Herschmann arguing that the only issue that remained after the election was, in his words, “orderly transition,” Further testimony is also expected from lesser-known figures.
Because it isn’t just the big fish who matter in the ecosystem of this episode. It is the krill and the algal blooms and the jellyfish and the minnows who count and who, in the broader biology of this political biosphere, may be just as important, as amplifiers of events or, perhaps, as sources of fresh evidence.
That was the lesson of the Watergate hearings, which consumed an entire summer and captivated the country, with the average American household watching about 30 hours of the hearings.
“The challenge is that January 6th is a story where it is very hard for the American people to assemble the pieces,” Garrett Graff, the author of Watergate: A New History, published in February, said in an interview. “Those pieces have come out drip by drip over 18 months. The opportunity for the hearing is to tell the story clearly and comprehensively so people can understand just how serious the events of Jan. 6 were and how close Donald Trump came to fomenting a coup. It’s a chance to put all this up on a national billboard.”
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