Reporter's Notebook: With Mueller hearings ahead, the 'book' may be better than the 'movie'

“When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.” – Albert Einstein, explaining his Theory of Relativity

It’s hard to imagine there could be more bedlam in the House of Representatives this week than there was last week.

President Trump vs. “The Squad.” A resolution condemning Trump for “racist comments.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., violating the standards of House decorum – and then the House voting not to sanction her. The House blocking an impeachment effort. The House voting to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt. The House repealing a central component of ObamaCare, the “Cadillac” tax. Democrats finally coming together to approve an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. A feisty hearing about detention centers with acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. And all of this looms against backroom negotiations over of the most contentious issue in Congress: raising the debt ceiling.

Hard to top all of that for pandemonium.

Yeah, but Robert Mueller is coming to Capitol Hill this week.

As Einstein would say, all things are relative.

The high-test congressional atmosphere - coupled with venomous rhetoric, baleful brawling and general malignancy - prompted House Chaplain Fr. Patrick Conroy to deliver an opening prayer for the ages to the House session last Thursday.

“This has been a difficult and contentious week in which darker spirits seem to have been at play in the people’s House,” pronounced Conroy from the dais in his daily invocation.

Conroy then raised both hands to shoulder height, palms facing outwards.

“In Your most holy name, I cast out all spirits of darkness from this chamber. Spirits not from you. I cast out the spirit of discouragement which deadens the hope of those who are of good will,” Conroy declared. “I cast out the spirit of petty divisiveness which clouds the sense and the desire to be of fruitful productivity and addressing the issues more appropriately before this House. I cast out any sadness brought on by the frustration of dealing with matters detrimental to the honorable work each member has been called to engage in.”

Conroy prayed that there would be “a healing balm to comfort and renew the souls of all in this assembly.”

We’ll see how it goes.

All eyes focus on the House this Wednesday as Mueller, the former special counsel, appears before two panels. These are perhaps the most-anticipated congressional hearings in decades.

Congress has certainly seen its share of blockbuster hearings. The testimony of former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen was a smasher over the winter. The same with recent appearances by Barr and former FBI Director James Comey. Independent Counsel Ken Starr testified in 1998 about the Starr report, detailing the misdeeds of then-President Clinton. A 2010 hearing with BP CEO Tony Hayward commanded attention after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There was a 2005 hearing with baseball superstars Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco about steroid abuse. Tobacco executives testified at a 1994 hearing that nicotine was not addictive.

One has to go all the way back to July 1987 to find a hearing as significant as the Mueller conclave on Wednesday. That’s when Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North testified before the joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee. The panel was investigating whether the Reagan administration covertly bypassed Congress, swapping arms for hostages.

A redacted version of the Mueller report came out in mid-April. The public may not have read the book, but House Democrats clearly hope the public will watch the movie.

The show starts next Wednesday.

Democrats have been trying to animate the words on the pages of the report into something the public remembers. They’re aiming to distill the multi-hour hearings into a moment or two, crystallizing what they interpret as transgressions of President Trump.

That’s how big hearings always go. There’s a cinematic quality to them. Hearings stretch for hours. The goal for both sides is to create a “scene,” something memorable for the public. It could be a lawmaker tripping up the witness. The witness tripping up the lawmaker. A feisty exchange. An expression of candor.

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It may not be fair, but reporters and the public “score” big hearings like ringside judges at a prizefight. They note how many blows each side got in. Who fought dirty. Who took one on the chin. Who’s cut above their right eye. Who needs smelling salts from their cornerman.

This is what takes us back to the Iran-Contra hearings and the appearance of Oliver North. Few recall much of North’s multiple days of testimony. But everyone remembers what they saw: a single image which “won” the hearing.

TV crews positioned the camera to capture North’s testimony low on the floor, pointing toward the witness table. North dressed in full military regalia. When Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the committee's chairman, swore-in North, the lieutenant colonel rose and stood ram-rod straight as though at attention for a drill sergeant. After a beat, North snapped his right hand into position. A cacophony of rapid-fire camera shutter clicks filled the room, sounding like a thousand crickets, rubbing their wings together at dusk.

Any Hollywood director will tell you there’s one way to make an actor appear powerful on-screen: drop the camera to the floor and shoot upward toward his face. Shoot downward toward the actor if you wish to diminish his credibility and make him appear small and weak.

Lt. Col. Oliver North being sworn in on his first day of testimony at the Iran Contra hearings in July 1987.

Lt. Col. Oliver North being sworn in on his first day of testimony at the Iran Contra hearings in July 1987. (Getty Images, File)

Very little mattered after that shot of North, capturing his Marine uniform and his square jaw from the camera on the floor. North appeared powerful. Defiant. In command.

Nothing else at the hearing could compete.

You’ve heard about “soundbites.” Well, this was a “sight-bite.”

The image of North overwhelmed the testimony. North standing solo, pitted against a phalanx of House members and senators, spread across the dais. North exuded power, confidence and patriotism. By contrast, viewers perceived lawmakers and committee counsel as wobbly and disorganized.

North’s testimony scrubbed daytime soap operas and game shows. People watched the hearings at lunch counters and over beer in bars. Shoppers lingered in department stores, viewing North’s image on banks of Zenith and Magnavox TV sets lining showroom floors.

After North’s performance, “Ollie-mania” gripped the nation. Delicatessens dressed up “Ollie” sandwiches. People flooded North’s McLean, Va., home with telegrams. Literary and TV agents scrambled to ink North. Phone calls flooded the White House in favor of North.

It’s possible the public will perceive Wednesday’s hearings through a different prism. Democrats have been hoping to convert Mueller into a convincing figure wielding damning evidence against the president. Republicans have been aiming to undercut him. The public already has been divided, too. Everyone’s already picked a side, donning either Red Sox or Yankees jerseys.

Sources have told Fox News that Mueller may just stick to the text of his report, delivering yes or no answers and reading. That would leave it to lawmakers to breathe life into the testimony. Some lawmakers may try to embroider the testimony with their own interpretations and insights. After all, we live in a visual culture. “Sight-bites” might make a difference.

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So, does putting all of this on television help Democrats make their case? Do the president and Republicans appear redeemed come Wednesday night?

Hard to tell. But, as the Mueller report goes on TV, there’s something worth remembering: the book is often better than the movie.