Decades ago, I was mesmerized by the Watergate hearings. As a recent graduate with a degree in political science and a McGovern delegate to the 1972 Democratic convention, I was obsessive about following events in the Watergate saga. Admittedly, my motives weren’t totally pure: to see the opponent of the candidate I supported get his come-uppance was too great to resist. But more significantly, I was awed by the opportunity to watch history unfold before my very eyes. And so, work went undone, household obligations lagged and I spent far too much time watching the evening rebroadcasts of the hearings.
This week marked the beginning of yet a new set of impeachment hearings and, despite my best intentions, I found myself similarly sucked in. There are marked differences between then and now. I remember the bipartisan effort to hold Richard Nixon accountable and that some Republicans—like Lowell Weicker, Bill Cohen, Howard Baker, Larry Hogan, Elliott Richardson—were reasonable and open minded. This week demonstrated little independent thinking on the part of individual members of the Republican Party.
On the first day of the hearings, the contrast between the “fact witnesses”—State Department official George Kent and acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee was remarkable and apparent right from the start. Rep. Devin Nunez set the tone in his opening statement when he derisively welcomed the witnesses, “Ambassador Taylor and Mr. Kent—I’d like to welcome you here, and congratulate you for passing the Democrats’ Star Chamber auditions held for the last six weeks in the basement of the Capitol. It seems you agreed, wittingly or unwittingly, to participate in a drama. But the main performance—the Russia hoax—has ended, and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel.”
The witnesses did not bow to Republican taunts to be shills for impeachment. Instead, they consistently offered statements about what they knew or experienced, leaving it (appropriately) for members of Congress to determine whether the facts rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
While I admit I will probably succumb to watching this drama unfold, as I did during Watergate, I don’t look forward to the slog of wading through hours of testimony. And yet, every so often, rhetorical jewels emerge that remind us of why this process is all worth it. One such moment occurred this week in the concluding words in Ambassador Taylor’s opening statement.
The Ambassador said, “Mr. Chairman, there are two Ukraine stories today. The first is the one we are discussing this morning and that you have been hearing for the past two weeks. It is a rancorous story about whistleblowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption, and interference in elections. In this story Ukraine is merely an object.
“But there is another Ukraine story—a positive, bipartisan one. In this second story, Ukraine is the subject. This one is about young people in a young nation, struggling to break free of its past, hopeful that their new government will finally usher in a new Ukraine, proud of its independence from Russia, eager to join Western institutions and enjoy a more secure and prosperous life. This story describes a nation developing an inclusive, democratic nationalism, not unlike what we in America, in our best moments, feel about our diverse country—less concerned about what language we speak, what religion if any we practice, where our parents and grandparents came from; more concerned about building a new country.”
Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for reminding us of what it means to be an American and why we need to work so hard to keep our democratic experiment vibrant and free.