Every big Congressional hearing has a “moment.”
And BP CEO Tony Hayward gets his today. Hayward is scheduled to testify about the massive oil spill before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
It’s hard to say what Hayward’s moment will be. He’ll sit at the witness table as lawmakers grill and preen and lecture and posture and speechify and badger and play to a worldwide television audience. Sure Argentina, France and Mexico all have matches in the World Cup today. But I bet the TV ratings for the Hayward hearing rival whatever global audience those games draw.
Big Congressional hearings only come along so often. The last marquee hearing hit earlier this year when lawmakers dragged Toyota executives to Congress as they investigated problems with the company’s gas pedals. There was a media frenzy when the House Homeland Security Committee summoned White House party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi to testify some months back. The Salahis didn’t materialize at the first hearing. Which marked the only party that crew has ever declined to attend. It took a subpoena to compel the dynamic duo to grace the committee with their presence a few weeks later.
In March of 2009, lawmakers ran AIG CEO Edward Liddy through the ringer after his firm shelled out hefty bonuses. AIG had just secured a massive government bailout. In March, 2005 former slugger Mark McGwire dimmed his Hall of Fame chances when he repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a hearing studying steroid use in Major League Baseball.
All of these hearings are media frenzies. Reporters and photographers troll the horseshoe entrance to the Rayburn House Office Building and bark questions at the star witness as they stride inside. The still photographers jockey for position. The camera operators walk backwards, trying to grab a shot. Boom mic operators extend fish poles over top of the witness in an effort to record a cough or a whisper.
Those are the theatrics outside the hearing room.
But the real show is inside.
Like stage plays, hearings have multiple acts and scenes. However, at the end of the show, most patrons only remember a few key moments.
Hamlet is reduced to the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Cats is distilled into the melancholy number “Memory.”
Tony Hayward’s drama will play out over a number of hours today. But just like Hamlet or Cats, we’ll distill his appearance into a moment that crystallizes the entire affair.
It could be anything. A soundbyte. A testy exchange with a lawmaker. Protesters. A fit of anger. Tears.
And that’s all everyone will recall.
For instance, Gen. David Petraeus fainted during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. No one can tell you what Petraeus said about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But everyone remembers he passed out while seated before a line of senators.
Big Congressional hearings have produced scores of nuggets over the years that become emblematic of that particular probe.
Few can tell you much about the crusades of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) to rid the U.S. government of communist infiltrators. But lots of people can quote Army Counsel Joseph Welch admonishing McCarthy for his hectoring of witness Fred Fisher at a 1954 hearing.
“Have you no sense of decency sir?” Welch barked at McCarthy.
The Watergate hearings are remembered for a soundbyte. Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN) asked aloud “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
Fast-forward to the nationally-televised Iran-Contra inquiry of 1987. This time a “sight-byte” codified those hearings. The image of Col. Oliver North rising from his seat and hoisting his right-hand to be sworn-in is iconic. North cuts a striking figure decked out in full military dress. The cameras for the hearing were positioned on the floor staring up at North. Thus, he towers over the room appearing invincible. That picture burnished North’s image and immortalized him in some quarters as an American hero.
The 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ran for days. Those hearings are known for their sheer salaciousness as senators discussed the mysterious appearances of pubic hairs on Pepsi cans and the porn star “Long Dong Silver.” But Thomas’s hearing is probably best-known for when he turned the tables on Vice President Biden who then chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“This is a high-tech lynching,” Thomas lectured. He later added that the scenario was “Kafkaesque.”
A memorable moment unfolded just Tuesday when lawmakers fumed at oil executives during another Congressional hearing about the Gulf spill. Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) suggested that BP America President Lamar McKay kill himself.
“During the Samurai days, we’d just give you the knife and ask you to commit hara-kiri,” Cao said. “My constituents are still debating on what they want me to ask you to do.”
In many respects, Congressional hearings are nothing more than a theatrical tripwire. Dozens of hearings play out on a daily basis all over Capitol Hill without much fanfare. Unless a witness makes a brazen mistake. In other words, expect Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan to cruise through her confirmation hearings in a few weeks. But if she commits a blunder, all bets are off.
That won’t be the case today for Tony Hayward. His firm stumbled over too many trip wires long before arriving on Capitol Hill.
Sometimes protesters take center stage at these affairs. After the start of the Iraq war, Operation Code Pink emerged as a fixture at Capitol Hill hearings. In 2007, one protester colored her hands red to symbolize blood and then waved them in the face of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before she testified.
“War criminal!,” the protester shouted at Rice as U.S. Capitol Police hustled the woman out of the room.
So what will be the defining moment of today’s inquest? A sharp exchange? A show of raw emotion? Mea culpas? A resignation? A demonstration?
It’s impossible to tell. But it’s likely we’ll boil the hearing down to a single soundbyte. One moment. A legacy which will enter an elite pantheon. Have you no sense of decency sir? What did the president know and when did he know it? This is a high-tech lynching.
The Gulf crisis will eventually pass. And in a few years or a decade or even half a century, few will recall much about what transpired today.
Except for that moment.