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Television

Commentary: Impeachment isn’t ‘Law & Order.’ It’s time to stop viewing it that way

Noah Feldman, from left, Pamela S. Karlan, Michael Gerhardt and Jonathan Turley appear  before the House Judiciary Committee at Wednesday’s impeachment hearing.
Noah Feldman, from left, Pamela S. Karlan, Michael Gerhardt and Jonathan Turley appear before the House Judiciary Committee at Wednesday’s impeachment hearing.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The show is over. Articles of impeachment are about to be drafted.

The House’s televised public impeachment inquiry has been a long, painful and sometimes funny — as in “laugh until you cry” funny — slog. Now it’s time for The People to decide. At least, that’s what would happen in a scripted series with no basis in reality: TV justice, meted out by folks just like us, and in under an hour, is way sexier than a party-line vote.

But as senators prepare for the trial that would follow a House vote, it’s still unclear whether the viewers — sorry, citizens — in our televised democracy were persuaded one way or another regarding the impeachment of President Trump. The law, after all, requires sobriety and clarity to work, and that’s a hard sell in an ecosystem where escapism and mirrored reality are the currency.

The televised inquiries do not appear to have significantly shifted public opinion. From October to the end of November, those in favor of impeachment hovered around 50%. The numbers indicate passive viewing, at best. Though TV ratings for previous days’ hearings were reasonably strong, voters undecided on the impeachment question are among those least likely to be paying close attention.

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The cold, sober facts of the case and hours of testimony just aren’t the stuff of the “hearings” we’re used to watching. We are, after all, an electorate whose understanding of government and the law has been shaped by “The West Wing,” “Veep” and “Making a Murderer” — or worse, “Judge Judy.”

In essence, the Democrats methodically laid out an airtight case in front of folks who know as much about Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution as they do about their own physiology.

While political junkies, pundits and (former) presidential hopefuls can’t detach from this piece of history in the making, a large portion of the country appears to have opted out.

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The House Judiciary Committee’s questioning Wednesday of legal experts on articles of impeachment — and last month’s grilling of foreign service officers and aides by the House Intelligence Committee — did not evoke quite the same backstabbing drama of “Succession” or the brutality of a “Game of Thrones” tribunal.

Instead, Democrats have fed the political dumpster fire with reams of damning testimony and evidence. Republicans have tried to smother the blaze, which might explain what happened to Rep. Jim Jordan’s missing jacket.

And both sides leaned heavily on history.

The framers of the Constitution were invoked so often during Wednesday’s 8½-hour hearing, it’s a wonder Thomas Jefferson didn’t materialize belting a “Hamilton” tune: “‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ We fought for these ideals, we shouldn’t settle for less. These are wise words, enterprising men quote ’em. Don’t act surprised, you guys, cause I wrote ’em.”

A song or two might have spruced up the Judiciary Committee’s inquiry, which was more academic than the hearings conducted by their counterparts in Intelligence. Nothing like “Hamilton” to make folks care about the health of their democracy. The panel’s legal experts did, however, pepper their testimony with pop-culture references and memorable retorts.

Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School name-checked “The Good Place” in his otherwise deeply serious testimony about our dire constitutional crisis. Stanford Law School professor Pamela S. Karlan ferociously countered Rep. Doug Collins when he suggested she didn’t do her homework on the specifics of the case. “I ate a turkey that came to us in the mail that was already cooked because I was spending my [Thanksgiving] doing this!” she bristled. One spectator even arrived armed with opera glasses for better viewing of the tragicomedy. “Law & Order” couldn’t have pulled off that flourish.

Throughout the hearings, though, it’s Republicans who’ve been most proficient in the art of Kabuki theater — which is more in line with the fist-pounding antics of “The Good Wife” or perhaps more accurately, its Trump-era successor, “The Good Fight.” But even their attempts to hold court have failed to engage, and more importantly inspire, viewers already burned out on “The Trump Show.”

Next season he’ll step into the starring role, when the actions of a reckless president, who appears to have abused the power of office for personal gain, invited a foreign government to meddle in U.S. elections and obstructed justice in the process, will be on trial. It’s safe to say there will be no reality TV table flips or “Perry Mason"-style courtroom moments — but maybe it’s time to stop craving spectacle and start listening to the facts. Should our democracy really depend more on legal dramas than it does on the law?


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