The democratic Kool-Aid onus test
Congressional hearings come in many forms. This one may be among our history's most important.
The ongoing Jan. 6 hearings may help heal our democracy, if they follow the right model. (Photo by Brendan Beale on Unsplash)
Who might’ve guessed that the summer’s TV hit would be a show produced by a bunch of members of Congress? Sure, it’s not on everybody’s watch list: Fox News viewers flip over to sports channels when the hearings come on, we’re told. But almost everybody else seems caught up in the hearings of the House Insurrection Investigation Committee — which is not its formal name, of course, but what it’s really up to. Nielsen, the company that analyzes TV viewership, says that 55.3 million people have seen some part of the hearings so far.1
There’s quite a history of blockbuster congressional hearings in modern times, and they’ve yielded all sorts of results. There was Joe McCarthy in the mid-1950s, hyping claims of communists in government and Hollywood. In the. mid-1970s, Frank Church, a liberal senator from Idaho, exposed abuses of power in intelligence-gathering by the CIA and the FBI. There were impeachment hearings involving two presidents, hearings into the government response to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, seven separate probes into the 2012 Benghazi attack and, of course, the Watergate hearings of 1974, which kind of stand in a class of their own for their probity and impact.
So about those hearings on the Jan. 6 capitol attack: When Americans look back a half century from now, will these days be viewed as useful and important? Or only as footnotes in a dark chapter of American history?
One of my friends the other day offered some sympathy for the rioters who have been hauled into court while the uprising’s instigator lives lavishly in Florida, still spouting the lies they believed and the calls to action they heeded. “I mean, they’re just people who drank the Kool-Aid,” my friend said.
True enough, but that phrase bugs me, in part because most people now don’t recall the horror of its origin — which was a congressional investigation, in fact, that took a terrible turn and left more than 900 people dead, most of them rotting in a jungle.
To be clear, congressional investigations and hearings are usually staged events, with outcomes mostly known before the first gavel falls. As a young aide on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, I helped organize just such hearings. Their goal is typically aimed more at making political hay for members of Congress than uncovering new information for them to act upon. Their pace is ordinarily plodding, their outcomes predictable.
But not always. One of the hearings I helped produce featured a rather flamboyant member of Congress from the San Francisco Bay area, Leo Ryan, who performed his role for our subcommittee soberly. Not long afterwards, Ryan undertook another congressional probe, this one into reports of abuse in a cult led by a California-based faith healer, Jim Jones, that had settled in the jungle of Guyana. Ryan was determined to stage a fact-finding hearing in Jonestown, but the State Department advised against it, and no other members of Congress agreed to go along — not even Ryan’s friend Dan Quayle, who then represented the Indiana congressional district where Jim Jones had been born. Undeterred, Ryan showed up to stage interrogations at the jungle compound, with reporters and staff in tow.2
But at the airstrip as he was leaving, Jones’ followers opened fire, killing Ryan, three journalists and a cult defector. Back at the compound, Jones, surely fearing the repercussions of assassinating a federal official, ordered his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid (note: not Kool-Aid), then shot himself. When authorities finally cut through the jungle days later, they found 909 bloated bodies.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, many people blamed Jim Jones for the deaths of those hundreds of followers. There was also talk on Capitol Hill, amid the mourning, that the mass suicide never would have happened if Leo Ryan hadn’t followed his adventurous spirit into the jungle. Whether or not you buy those conclusions — since they go to the thorny issue of our agency over our own behavior — they raise a key point that now confronts the Jan. 6 committee: How much culpability should be assigned to the ringleader of the rebellion?
If we think Jim Jones was to blame for the deaths in the Guyanese jungle — that his followers were so sure of his rightness that they honored his command to drink the poison — then it’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump isn’t similarly responsible for the deaths at the U.S. Capitol at the hands of his acolytes. And if you say the irresponsible behavior of Leo Ryan precipitated the events in Jonestown, then isn’t the onus on the enablers of Donald Trump — people like Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, to name a few — for the events of Jan. 6?
There was one beneficial effect of the Jonestown tragedy: It awakened many Americans to the dangers of religious cults. Yet we seem even more vulnerable these days than we were four decades back to cultish political influences. After all, the policies pursued by Donald Trump’s administration were no more wholesome for his followers than Jim Jones’ teachings were for his, yet Trump remains the most popular Republican leader in the country.
As the Insurrection Investigation Committee continues its work, we may draw hope from the fact that it is taking a thoughtful and serious approach. Is it scripted? Certainly, just as most congressional hearings are. Its presentation, though — with good use of video and sound, careful positioning of findings, and appearances of compelling characters who lay out a sort of story arc — is setting a standard for effective government communication in the 21st century.
So far, the committee seems to be cut not from the mold of the Ryan investigation, but rather from that of the special Senate committee convened in 1973 and 1974 to investigate the break-in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex. Now we admire the fierce independence of Liz Cheney, the ranking Republican on the Jan 6 committee, just as back then we hailed the work of Howard Baker, who had that role on the Watergate committee. It was Baker who famously put the issue before the committee succinctly: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
We may take comfort from the fact that the terrible realities uncovered by the answer to that question 48 years ago — a president talking about hush money and clemency for criminals, apparent felonies committed in the Oval Office — led to real reform. In the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal, voters punished those who had tolerated the official misconduct, and also insisted that government at all level adopt wide-ranging ethics reforms. From some of the worst days of governing in our nation’s first two centuries, some of the greatest progress toward truly responsive democracy emerged.
These days are arguably even more challenging for our democracy than Watergate was. But as the Insurrection Investigation Committee methodically goes about its task, it is becoming quite clear what the president knew on Jan 6, and who must be held accountable for what transpired. There is no doubt now, after all, about who mixed the Kool-Aid and led the cult to drink.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our *common ground
Wherein each week we look around what we call America’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints that you might not otherwise encounter.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Montgomery, Ala. (Montgomery Advertiser, montgomeryadvertiser.com)
Carlsbad, N.M. (Carlsbad Current-Argus, currentargus.com)
Columbia, Mo. (Columbia Daily Tribune, columbiatribune.com)
Chesapeake Bay, Md. (Salisbury Daily Times, delmarvanow.com)
Lawsuits aim to block recovery funds for prison work
State officials in Alabama want to use $400 million in federal Covid recovery funds to help subsidize a $1.3 billion prison construction project. But according to reporting by Brian Lyman in the Montgomery Advertiser, the project is coming up against a pair of lawsuits filed by Justice Capital, a so-called “impact investment” fund, which has been organizing opposition to the project. “Alabama has fundamental issues around education, health care, the provision of health care, and sanitation,” said Eric Glass of Justice Capital. “That to me is far more aligned with the spirit and intention of federal relief.”
Plan to save wolves ignores best science, experts claim
Efforts to restore ecological balance in the American West have often come up against pushback from economic interests, and that’s especially seen in the clash between livestock producers and those who say the environment needs the presence of predators. As Adrian Hedden reports in the Carlsbad Current-Argus, a federal plan to recover the endangered Mexican gray wolf — known in New Mexico as the lobo — is being attacked as inadequate to prevent the animal’s extinction. Scientists for the organization that has filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say the federal plan, which hopes to grow the 196 wolves in the wild by just 22 by 2030, ignores the need to establish more genetic diversity. The wolves released in the wild in recent years have descended from too small a number of captive lobos, the lawsuit claims, noting that genetic diversity enhances a species’ chance of survival.
Bridge builders construct curriculum for kids
America needs more civil engineers, but those well-paying jobs often aren’t seen by today’s youngsters as possible career choices. That’s behind an initiative reported by Roger McKinney in the Columbia Daily Tribune that has engaged the firm building a bridge replacement on Interstate 70 to help develop a curriculum for K-12 students. Says University of Missouri engineering professor Sara Orton, who created the free online curriculum in collaboration with the construction firm, "We want to help them learn about bridge design and get them interested in the whole construction process."
Dead zones in bay projected to be lower than last year
Polluted runoff into waterways leads to diminished oxygen in the water, and that has killed some vital fish, crab and oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay. But as Kristian Jaime reports in the Salisbury Daily Times, there’s a bit of good news: those dead zones are expected to be 13 percent lower over this summer than last year. That’s because there was less water entering the bay’s tributaries this spring. Still, the outlook is mixed, at best: Under a 2010 agreement, the three major bay states — Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania — promised major efforts to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution into the bay; only Virginia is on track to meet the standards.
There are real advantages to living in the Great Northeast in every season, but we notice it especially in the summer. We began this week swimming in a clear Adirondack mountain lake after a hike to a scenic summit; we ended it fly-fishing for brown trout in a Vermont stream, then working in the garden, where we harvested some produce and flowers. For this abundance, we are grateful.
And I thank you for reading The UPSTATE AMERICAN this week (special thanks to our subscribers!), and for joining me on our journey across our *common ground, this great America.
- REX SMITH