And now, the all-important pizzazz debate.
After the first day of the House impeachment hearings droned to a close, NBC ran a “plenty of substance but little drama” piece, with the subhead: “The first two witnesses called Wednesday testified to Trump’s scheme, but lacked the pizzazz necessary for public attention.”
Reporter Jonathan Allen defended himself, saying optics matter—which of course is true—but there was a telling response from data guru Nate Silver.
“To a journalist who knows the story in and out, maybe the hearings didn't reveal much that they didn't already know,” the 538 founder tweeted. “So maybe *journalists* were bored. But the public doesn't know as much, the conduct described is very serious, and impeachment is a fairly rare, historic process.”
The House Democrats found themselves in something of a box of their own making. William Taylor and George Kent needed to be calm and steady witnesses, as most observers agree they were, to make the case that they were there as neutral career diplomats rather than anti-Trump advocates.
But the back and forth about military aid and text messages and irregular channels made for less than scintillating television--especially since the Democrats had already leaked or released what the men had to say in closed session. So with a couple of exceptions, there was little new information about the president and Ukraine—at least for the journalists and pundits covering the story.
If there had been fireworks, which the media love, Taylor and Kent would have come off as partisans. So that left a hearing described by Reuters as “consequential but dull.” Politico called it an “impeachment slog.”
Still, more than 13 million people watched the daytime event on the six broadcast and cable news networks, led by Fox.
The problem posed by these hearings is much broader than a couple of witnesses. There is nothing resembling the suspense and drama that surrounded the impeachment efforts against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
In Nixon’s case, after the exposure of the spying and burglaries, there was a sense that the country was on the brink, and an underlying fear that he might not leave office.
With Clinton, the charges were sexier, to put it crudely, but enough Democrats were critical of his misconduct and lying that there was a momentous sense of a morality play and questions about whether he could survive.
This week, the country is so utterly polarized between Trump supporters and detractors that the hearings feel a bit like a scripted ritual. And that is amplified by the near-certainty that House Democrats will impeach the president on a party-line vote and Senate Republicans will save him.
A New York Times analysis, praising Taylor as “a wise, fatherly figure…with a deep baritone voice reminiscent of Walter Cronkite’s,” acknowledged the muffled impact:
“It was not clear that minds were changed. Certainly they were not inside the room, and most likely not elsewhere on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and Democrats were locked into their positions long ago. Nor were there any immediate signs that the hearing penetrated the general public.”
In the end, a process as solemn as impeachment shouldn’t turn on whether congressional hearings are sufficiently riveting or meet some pizzazz quotient. The prospect of removing a duly elected president is far too serious for that. Did Hamilton worry that the Federalist Papers lacked pizzazz?
But it’s also true that those pushing impeachment are doomed to failure if they can’t mobilize public opinion in an environment in which Americans are accustomed to being constantly entertained.