Once upon a time, according to ancient Greek and Roman myth, the stables of King Augeas were so filthy that no human could clean them. The world’s largest herd of cattle had been kept in those stables for years, and they’d filled it with tons and tons of dung.
The great hero Hercules was charged with the impossible-seeming task of cleaning the king’s disgusting stables as part of a series of labors assigned to him by the oracle at Delphi. He carefully dug channels that led to the stables, and then diverted the paths of two mighty rivers into those channels, sweeping the filth out of the stables and washing them clean.
I’ve been thinking of this story while watching the US House hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. The metaphor of the Augean stables is an apt one for political-corruption sagas, and an old one — going back at least as far as the 18th century. The unethical and illegal events that have happened are the dung; the facts come to light, and the resulting public outrage is the river that sweeps through the stables and cleans them.
The hearings are laying out the facts as methodically as Hercules laid out the channels through which the river would flow. We are hearing sworn testimony — not of what people imagined or suspected or wished for or heard rumors about, but of what people actually saw, and heard, and did or did not do. We’re getting a painstaking week-by-week, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of events within the White House. We are hearing how Donald Trump fabricated and disseminated the lie of a stolen election long before the election even happened; how, after the election, his advisers told him that there was no evidence of fraud; how all the lawsuits alleging fraud failed.
We are hearing that his advisers told him that Vice President Mike Pence had no constitutional authority to overturn the election results. We’re hearing how Trump continued to incite the mob even as they swarmed through the Capitol hunting Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We’re hearing how Trump pressured and tried to intimidate elected representatives and election officials into overturning legitimate election results; how he smeared election officials and poll workers; and how these tactics turned into harassment, terrorizing, and death threats by his minions.
Then, the minute the hearings pause, we hear the instant analysis. The media start telling us that public outrage isn’t going to be strong enough, or widespread enough, to matter. Twenty million people watched the first hearing. That’s a lot, say some pundits. No it isn’t, say others. Trump responds on social media and during a rally; his responses are breaking news. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s silence is breaking news. How someone in a coffee shop feels about the hearings compared with how that person feels about the price of gas is breaking news. What does it all mean? the pollsters and panelists keep asking. What effect will it have on the midterms and on the 2024 presidential election?
The truth is: Nobody knows.
Along with the testimony itself, another thing that has riveted me (and other viewers, judging by the Internet) is the stuff on the wall behind former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann. He’s testifying about hair-raising conversations he had with one of the leading promulgators of Trump’s attempted coup, and he’s sitting in front of what looks like a set of faucets. According to the Internet, it’s artwork; yet I kept itching to reach through the screen and turn on the water.
But they are not faucets; they are not connected to any water; and if you tried to turn them on nothing would happen.
It’s terrifying even to admit the possibility that the hearings might not have a huge impact — that this historic proceeding that should make all the difference may not in fact make any difference. The cleansing surge of water — the public outrage — that we hope will come and sweep out the dung may not come.
What I’d like to say to the pollsters and panelists is: Please shut up for a minute. As the hearings continue, let them have their effect. The drama is in their content, not in their opening-week box office numbers. It’s dangerous to let ourselves get so worked up about what it all means that we miss what is actually being said. When we’re in the middle of a proceeding like this, we don’t know what its ultimate impact will be.
Going back to the Hercules story, the immediate aftermath wasn’t all that unmessy. The king disputed the outcome of the cleaning job, even though his own son backed up Hercules’s version in court.
But over time the story took on clarity and power, and what history remembers is this: The Augean stables got cleaned.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.