Opinion | The Watergate Hearings Gripped a Nation. Can the Jan. 6 Hearings Do the Same?

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By Garrett M. Graff

Mr. Graff is the author of “Watergate: A New History.”

The Jan. 6 committee kicked off Thursday night with a powerful first hearing, complete with compelling witnesses, video clips of depositions and stunning footage of the violence that unfolded at the Capitol as Congress tried to certify the electoral vote. It came almost a half-century after the nation was captivated by a summer’s worth of Senate Watergate hearings — a cinematic 1973 drama packed with eye-opening revelations that ultimately helped unravel Richard Nixon’s presidency.

The challenge and mission of that committee, led by Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, were remarkably similar to the difficult ones that now face the House Jan. 6 Select Committee: How do you take a complex, amorphous series of events, with a wide, confusing cast of characters, and translate it into a coherent narrative that can persuade the American people?

Today, though, the Jan. 6 committee faces a challenging political and media environment, one where the political center on Capitol Hill has all but disappeared — there are almost no more liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats — and the right-wing media echo chamber, led by Fox News, can offer rebuttals and defenses unimagined a half-century ago and excoriate those who fail to wholeheartedly back former President Donald Trump.

And yet there are still three critical lessons from the Ervin committee that should inspire the Jan. 6 committee. They highlight the challenge ahead for the Jan. 6 committee — but by learning from them, the committee could help the American public understand the full truth about the attack on the Capitol and, critically, its aftermath as voters look ahead to future elections.

A compelling narrative

The first lesson worth considering is that Senator Ervin and his lead counsel, Sam Dash, rejected Republican proposals for precisely the limited handful of hearings that the Jan. 6 committee has planned. The Jan. 6 committee plans just six to eight hearings, including two in evening prime time — they have a lot more ground to cover after Thursday night, and apparently not much time left to do it.

The Ervin committee recognized and embraced the complexity they faced. It decided to go big and embraced the storytelling that such time allowed them — they held more than 237 hours of public hearings, spread out over 11 weeks of that “Watergate summer.”

Mr. Dash and his team eschewed starting with the biggest witnesses and blockbuster revelations. Instead, they told the full narrative of the Nixon White House’s corruption — connecting dots, introducing characters and building an understandable story. It actually took weeks of background and context until the summer’s star witness, John Dean, took the stand.

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