Reality TV and Reality Collide

The House impeachment inquiry makes its much ballyhooed debut on live television today, which puts in a wistfully nostalgic mood. It brings back vivid memories of the last two times the Congress tried to impeach a sitting president, and a jarring realization about how things change over time.
Way back in our youth the Watergate hearings were the top-rated show on television, and we watched with precociously rapt attention as the complex plot culminated with President Richard Nixon’s resignation and final helicopter flight from the White House. Even in the desultory aftermath of the Vietnam war and the emerging stagflation economy it was a very big deal, and with everything else on television at the time, it was such an epic morality play that we old folks talk about it to this day.
By the time President Bill Clinton was being impeached for lying under oath about a tawdry relationship with a White House intern during a civil lawsuit regarding a youth former Arkansas state employee, which was discovered by a special prosecutor charged with investigating a fail real estate scheme, things had noticeably changed. There weren’t any wars and the economy was growing without inflation, a post-sexual revolution country didn’t much care what its president was doing in his free time, and without any of the femmes fatales being questioned live on television the show couldn’t compete with all the other channels suddenly available on cable. In one of television’s greatest anticlimaxes the show ended with Clinton’s acquittal by a majority Democratic Senate, and no one on either of the side of the question at the time talks about much it now.
This time around things have changed even more noticeably. The nation’s notions of sexual propriety have reached a point where a thrice-married and boastful philanderer is the Republican president and hero of the evangelical right, and its standards for the proper exercise of presidential power have been similarly degraded. There are an exponentially greater number of viewing and reading options now, the impeachment hearings are boringly headed to a obviously predetermined and desultory-for-both-sides conclusion, and one likely outcome is that most Americans won’t much care how it comes out.
If you haven’t been slogging through the byzantine plot in the leaked or off-the-record reports in the print and electronic media, the gist of it is that several high-level Foreign Service and military officials have testified under oath to Congress that President Donald Trump’s White House withheld military and other aid to Ukraine unless it agreed to announce investigations into Trump’s past and potential future Democratic rivals. The White House itself released a rough transcript of a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president that seems to back up the charges, the White House chief of staff defiantly told a press gathering to “Get over it, we do it all the time,” and for now the Republicans are trying their best to come up with a better defense.
The Republicans protested when the witnesses testified in closed hearings, but their damning testimony has since been released, and we expect they’ll be telegenic and appealing characters when live on television. On other channels you can hear that they’re “deep state” conspirators involved in a coup d’tat against a duly elected president, and some Republicans will be saying the same on the hated “fake news” networks, but it’s not a convincing plot line, even by modern television standards. All but one of the witnesses for the prosecution all have impeccable records of public service, no apparent reason to lie, and their stories all line up. Several are Trump appointees, or appointees of his appointees, and the other witness is a dilettante diplomat who was appointed Ambassador to the European Union after bundling millions to Trump’s campaign and another million to Trump’s inaugural ball but has recently amended his testimony to line up with the others.
So far impeachment is polling pretty well, given the fractured media markets and bipartisan climate, and we expect that even low-rated televised hearings will nudge up the antipathy to Trump. Potential future guest stars include Trump’s personal attorney, whose peripatetic freelance foreign policy are currently under investigation by Trump’s own Justice Department, and Trump’s former national security advisor, who resigned over differences o such matters as our foreign policy with Ukraine, which would be widely watched.
Barring some deus ex machina plot twist in this improbable reality show, a nearly unanimous majority of the Democrats who control the House majority and perhaps even a few Republicans will almost certainly impeach Trump. For now it’s likely that a majority-Republican Senate won’t vote to remove Trump from office, but that might be slightly less likely with each passing day of televised testimony from believable witnesses about an arguably impeachable abuse of presidential power.
Back in our surly and cynical youth many of the Republicans used to care about that sort of thing, and even in our middle age there were some damned Democrats who were embarrassed by an older man using his presidential power to indulge in a tawdry relationship with an much younger intern, even if they thought lying about it under oath wasn’t necessarily an impeachable offense. These days there are so many channels to choose from, and all of the standards seem to have been lowered across the political divide, and much of the country probably won’t care how it turns out.
Even so, we’ll be “binge watching.”

— Bud Norman

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