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From McCarthy to Clinton: 5 moments in Congressional hearing history

Senator Joseph McCarthy (right) and Joseph Welch, during the Army-McCarthy hearings in Washington D.C., in 1954.
George Tames/The New York Times
Senator Joseph McCarthy (right) and Joseph Welch, during the Army-McCarthy hearings in Washington D.C., in 1954.

As the clock ticks down to former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, here’s a look at five gripping moments in the history of Congressional hearings.

Joseph Welch vs. Joseph McCarthy: June 1954

(Pictured above)

In a televised exchange described as the beginning of the end for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist hearings, Boston attorney Joseph Welch exorciated McCarthy amid the senator’s investigations into the US Army. When the Harvard-educated Welch, who was hired by the Army as its special counsel, was taking part in a hearing on June 9, 1954, McCarthy pounced on him, accusing a lawyer working for Welch of once being a communist. Welch responded, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” according to a Senate history of the moment. When McCarthy pressed on, Welch lashed out again, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Watergate: Beginning in May 1973

Robert C. Odle, a Nixon campaign official, testified before the Senate Watergate committee on May 17, 1973.
New York Times
Robert C. Odle, a Nixon campaign official, testified before the Senate Watergate committee on May 17, 1973.

A year after the foiled break-in at the Watergate Complex that eventually led to the downfall of President Nixon, a special Senate committee began holding hearings into the burglary and whether Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign had engaged in “illegal, improper or unethical activities.” In a look back, PBS noted that the hearings, which stretched over the summer, featured a “parade of witnesses and testimony” and that “public television aired all 250 hours of the hearings, gavel-to-gavel.”

Anita Hill: October 1991

Anita Hill testified during the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 11, 1991.
Paul Hosefros/New York Times/File
Anita Hill testified during the confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 11, 1991.

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Anita Hill spent three days testifying about her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while they worked together in several government agencies. As Newsweek recapped the next week, “This was the Scandal With Everything--penises, power, intense emotional pain--and millions tuned in.”

Big Tobacco: April 1994

James W. Johnston, chairman and chief executive of R. J. Reynolds.
David J. Ake/AFP/Getty Images
James W. Johnston, chairman and chief executive of R. J. Reynolds.
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On April 14, 1994, tobacco company executives testified for more than six hours on the effects of their product on their customers’ health. As the New York Times reported at the time, they told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment “that they did not believe that cigarettes were addictive, but that they would rather their own children did not smoke.” James W. Johnston, chairman and chief executive of R. J. Reynolds, said what the “antitobacco industry wants is prohibition. We hear about the addiction and the threat. If cigarettes are too dangerous to be sold, then ban them. Some smokers will obey the law, but many will not. People will be selling cigarettes out of the trunks of cars, cigarettes made by who knows who, made of who knows what.”

Hillary Clinton: October 2016

Jason Reed/REUTERS

In 2015, as the presidential campaign was building momentum, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton spent almost 11 hours being questioned by the House Select Committee on Benghazi. The hearing on the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans produced, as the L.A. Times reported, “little if any new information,” but the Times said it “provided an extraordinary spectacle, starting in the morning and stretching well into the night, far longer than such sessions typically last even with multiple witnesses.” Clinton and her Republican adversaries were both aggressive and sharp, but even the committee’s chairman, Representative Trey Gowdy, acknowledged afterward that they hadn’t learned much over all those hours. “I don’t know that she testified that much differently today than she has the previous times she testified,” he said.