Column: The Jan. 6 committee report feels like a ’70s rerun. Here’s why it’s definitely not

Rep. Liz Cheney appears on a screen as people watch the Jan. 6 hearings near the Capitol
People gather in a park outside of the U.S. Capitol to watch the Jan. 6 House committee investigation in Washington.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Can someone grab me a Tab and some Sea & Ski? We’ve time-traveled back to the 1970s and I need to prep for summer.

It’s easy to feel that way, at least: Here we all are again, watching a televised account of a Republican-led attempt to thwart democracy even as we cope with a gas crisis, rising inflation, abortion rights protests and what will inevitably be described at some point as cultural malaise. With the recent death of Jim Seals, “Summer Breeze” and “Diamond Girl” are earworming their way through the collective consciousness and the Rolling Stones just played Liverpool.

There’s a show about the making of “The Godfather,” a recent retread of “Death on the Nile,” an upcoming Elvis biopic and the sneaky return of crochet halter tops and bell bottoms.

Those who refuse to learn from history are, apparently, condemned to once more wear crochet halter tops and bell bottoms.

While watching lengthy testimony about a president’s attempt to rip up the Constitution.


Except there’s a difference, and it has to do with what we watch. The Jan. 6 committee is leaning into our current obsession with true crime and limited series and away from the sprawling 23-plus episodes season-style Watergate investigation, which dominated television for 11 weeks in 1973.

Trump appears on a screen as people watch during a hearing.
The House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds its first public hearing on Capitol Hill.
(Jabin Botsford / Associated Press)

There are other differences of course. As was made clear in the first two hours, the committee has already determined that Trump was at the center of a conspiracy to lie about the 2020 election results and attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power by illegal means, including the summoning of a mob to attack the Capitol building on the day Congress certified President Joe Biden’s victory.

Their public report will lay out the evidence.

Preferring substance over spectacle, real emotion over grandstanding, the first night of the Jan. 6 hearings successfully grabbed America’s attention.

If history were truly repeating itself, Donald Trump would be forced into real political exile and some of his henchpeople would wind up serving time.

Since many Americans, including GOP congressional representatives, are still “debating” whether the Jan. 6 insurrection happened, and if it did, was it really so bad, that outcome seems like a reach.

President Nixon sits at a microphone and points to bound transcripts.
President Nixon points to the transcripts of the White House tapes after he announced during a nationally televised speech that he would turn them over to House impeachment investigators in 1974.
(Associated Press)

On the other hand, many people initially thought the Watergate scandal was a nonstarter. Richard Nixon enjoyed more popular support than Trump ever did, and going into the Watergate hearings there were similar cries of “witch hunt” from the public and the press. Nixon loyalists founded the National Citizens’ Committee for Fairness to the Presidency; GOP members of Congress were expected to support the president no matter what.

Even after the indictment of the Watergate Seven, many chose to believe Nixon was not part of the conspiracy. It wasn’t until the release of the White House tapes, the existence of which was revealed during the hearing, that the Republican Party and the public turned on the president.

When the conservative Chicago Tribune became the first to publish the full transcripts, editor Clayton Kirkpatrick wrote: “It is a lack of concern for morality, a lack of concern for high principles, a lack of commitment to the high ideals of public office that make the transcripts a sickening exposure of the man and his advisers. … He is humorless to the point of being inhumane. He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane. He is willing to be led. He displays dismaying gaps in knowledge. He is suspicious of his staff. His loyalty is minimal.”

Senators hold a Watergate hearing in 1973.
The hearing of the Senate select committee on the Watergate case on Capitol Hill in 1973.
(Associated Press)

That is the bit of history the Jan. 6 committee is attempting to repeat: The moment when the facts are made irrefutable, the implications undeniable.

Given our current penchant for revisiting and occasionally re-adjudicating crimes past, it could work. Although, crochet clothing notwithstanding, this is not 1973. The problem facing the committee is not one of political division — the country was deeply divided then as it is now — but that unlike Nixon, with his famous Checkers speech and picture-perfect family, Trump has never hidden his Machiavellian tendencies. Indeed, it’s why many people voted for him.

A series of congressional hearings about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol have been televised. Here’s what you need to know.


Many of the characteristics that shocked Kirkpatrick were, and are, lauded by Trump’s supporters: the abusive tweets, the obvious lies (often under the guise of “joking”), the willingness to counter what they saw as the tyranny of “woke” culture by embracing extremist groups like the Klan, the vicious disrespect for those colleagues who disagreed with him and, increasingly, the democratic process.

Like the Challenger disaster, the Oklahoma City bombing and the fall of the Twin Towers, Jan. 6 is a fixed point on this country’s timeline.

Trump signaled his unwillingness to relinquish power early and often. He openly said the only way he could lose the election was if it were rigged. He openly declared victory before millions of ballots had been counted and demanded that millions of mail-in ballots be rejected. He openly said the election had been stolen when there was no evidence for the claim and vowed to take it to the Supreme Court. When that and other courts rejected his claims, Trump openly called for Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the election. When Pence said he could not legally do so, Trump openly encouraged a mob to storm the Capitol to end the certification.

If Richard Nixon said all the things revealed by the famous White House tapes on television and Twitter, would it have made them less egregious?

The first hours of the Jan. 6 committee report did not reveal transcripts of private presidential conversations but they did feature testimony from Trump’s inner circle. All agreed that Trump had been told repeatedly that he had lost the election and plotted to stay in office anyway.

Former Atty. Gen. William Barr speaks into a microphone.
Former Atty. Gen. William Barr speaks during a video deposition about the Jan. 6 attack.
(House Select Committee)

By the testimony of his own staff, Trump was certainly devious, profane, suspicious, disloyal, unconcerned about morality, principles or the high ideals of public office. Having quickly exhausted all the legal possibilities of proving he had won, he turned to illegal ones.

That is what happened. We all saw it on television and social media. We have now heard it from Trump’s own advisors, including his attorney general and his daughter.

Democracies are not overthrown accidentally. They are not overthrown in pursuit of the truth or to correct an injustice. They are overthrown when an individual or a group decides that personal power is paramount. And that is what the Jan. 6 committee hopes to prove — that there was a conspiracy to keep Trump in office and that conspiracy was headed by Trump.

It is a conspiracy that is still at play, as many GOP politicians re-pledge their loyalty to Trump and attempt to rewrite rather than learn from history.

According to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who initially demanded an investigation into the mob that forced him to flee for his life and then blocked all attempts to truly investigate it, “everybody beared [sic] some responsibility, based on what has been going on. The riots in the streets.”

This is, in the words of former Atty. Gen. William Barr, “bulls—.” As an Irish Catholic woman, I feel guilt and responsibility for many things I should not, but even as a member of the media I refuse to be blamed in any way for Trump’s decision to dog-whistle up the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other extremists, along with a lot of disgruntled citizens, and sic them on the Capitol police and members of Congress.

With a tidal wave of limited series swamping every streaming service, Hollywood once again proves that too much of a good thing is bad for business.

We can try to blame the media, playing off this country’s political divisions with Fox News on one side and MSNBC on the other. Certainly there is an increasing reliance on “takes” (including this one) to stir a conversation already wildly amplified and too often tragically simplified by social media.


But there was division among the media during Watergate — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s initial coverage was dismissed by many of their peers (including at the Los Angeles Times), who chose to focus on White House denials.

As chronicled in the Starz series “Gaslit,” everyone was certainly happy to dismiss the horrific kidnapping and physical abuse of Martha Mitchell, ordered by her husband out of fear she would speak to the press, as the ravings of an alcoholic.

Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) gives her opening remarks
Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) gives her opening remarks on the Jan. 6 investigation as Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), left, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) look on.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

I hope the revelations of Thursday night and subsequent evenings will do what the Watergate transcripts did: Reveal the truth of a very big lie. In many ways, the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was much worse than the coverup of the Watergate break-in. But fundamentally it is the same.

A president should not be allowed to use the power of his office to direct, encourage or fund illegal and immoral attempts to keep himself in power. We may have rejected Tab for Diet Coke and the old Sea & Ski for SPF 100, but most Americans still do not see tyranny as an upgrade from democracy.

The Jan. 6 committee is unlikely to replicate Watergate; it’s a different kind of show. But if it is as successful as so many other true-crime limited series have been, this country must be moved to ensure that this more recent bit of history is never allowed to repeat itself.