David Zurawik: Democrats create TV-friendly hearing without compromising seriousness of impeachment process

David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Op Eds

Democrats accomplished something very difficult Wednesday in these complicated media times: They staged a hearing that was TV-friendly without dumbing down or diminishing the seriousness of the impeachment process. In media and maybe political terms as well, that's a strong opening day to what will be at least two weeks of open hearings into the suitability of President Donald Trump to remain in office.

The staging was impressive down to the detail of Chairman Adam Schiff's chair and the way he sat in it. In the straight-on camera shot that dominated Schiff's imagery throughout the day, the back of his chair seemed taller than that of any other legislator in the room. That fact visually lent him a certain stature and immediate sense of authority.

Schiff further exploited that setting by sitting ramrod straight on the edge of the chair through a long day, a TV posture that made him seem even more highly focused and totally in command. He underlined that authority with crisp, no-nonsense responses and shutdowns to parliamentary moves early in the hearing from Republicans like Jim Jordan of Ohio, who tried to throw Schiff off his game. The more emotional and angry that Republican panelists like Jordan and Jim Ratliffe of Texas became, the more dispassionate, but firm, Schiff sounded.

I couldn't help thinking of the way the late Elijah Cummings looked at the start of a TV hearing earlier this year with Michael Cohen, President Trump's then personal attorney. Because of his poor health, Cummings sat slumped a bit in his chair at first, and looked like an easy target for Jordan and other GOP attack dogs. But then, at the end of the session when Cummings drew himself up and delivered a moral thunderbolt of a closing, it was all the more powerful and memorable. Posture equals stature in the language of television.

The Democrats also made a great choice in their chief counsel Daniel Goldman, who in addition to his 10 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, also appeared regularly as a legal analyst on MSNBC. Goldman's ease in front of the camera was in direct contrast to the more self conscious, aggressive body language of Steve Castor, chief counsel for the GOP.

Goldman came across as conversational and seemed mainly interested in trying to make the testimony and welter of details about Ukrainian officials more accessible to a general audience ? just the sort of thing TV hearings like this need to do to reach beyond media workers and hardcore politicos to a mass audience.

Castor, on the other hand, asked questions that anyone not steeped in the kind of conspiracy theories hatched in the depths of some of the darkest right-wing rabbit holes would have trouble following. That's the school of thought that insists it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in our 2016 election ? a narrative heard regularly from some GOP questioners.

The casting for Wednesday's opening day was also successful. Republican panelists tried to characterize William Taylor, the chief U.S. diplomat in Ukraine; and George Kent, a senior State Department official overseeing Ukraine policy, as two Trump-hating bureaucrats with only "hearsay" and "third-hand" knowledge of what the president and top Ukraine officials said or didn't say. But it didn't play against the visuals and straightforward, informed, fact-based answers the two gave to questions from both sides of the aisle.

Both have impeccable credentials not just as diplomats, but government workers with more than two and three decades of public service. Taylor was most impressive with a resume that included graduating fifth in a class of 800 in 1969 from West Point and then going into the infantry and serving in Vietnam as leader of a combat rifle company. One of Taylor's Democratic questioners skillfully made sure viewers heard all the details of that resume.


As a bonus, Taylor brought new testimony that one of his aides heard Trump on the phone stressing to Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, his desire that Ukraine investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. That narrative of Trump trying to get Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens is at the heart of the impeachment proceedings.

Kent was no slouch either in his three-piece suit and bow tie, looking like he might might have borrowed his wardrobe from Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

By the end of the day, Jordan looked as sullen, dark and angry as Richard Nixon in his 1960 TV debate against John Kennedy. Speaking of the whistleblower who lodged the initial complaint against Trump, Jordan ended his closing remarks by angrily demanding that the person who "started it all" come before the panel and answer in public for his words.

The difference in tone and temper between the two sides was perfectly demonstrated moments later when Vermont Democrat Peter Welch replied to Jordan's angry words saying, "I'd be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there," he said pointing to the witness table.

(c)2019 The Baltimore Sun

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