Historic Congressional Hearings

Photograph of Hillary Clinton's 2009 Senate confirmation hearing.
Senate hearing on Hillary Clinton's confirmation as secretary of state in 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Congressional Hearings Make News, History, and Spectacular TV

Photograph of Hillary Clinton's 2009 Senate confirmation hearing.
Senate hearing on Hillary Clinton's confirmation as secretary of state in 2009. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Hearings by congressional committees are routinely held to gather information about proposed legislation or to confirm (or reject) presidential nominees. But sometimes congressional hearings become televised theater with revelations from the witness table becoming the biggest news in America. And sometimes the revelations are truly historic.

Here are some Congressional hearings that made a difference.

Huge Hit on Early TV: Senate Organized Crime Hearings

Photograph of mob boss Frank Costello testifying before a Senate committee.
Mob boss Frank Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee. Library of Congress

In 1951, when television was just becoming popular, a committee led by an ambitious senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, put on a spectacular show, live from the federal courthouse in New York City. A New York Times front-page headline on March 12, 1951, proclaimed: "Senate Crime Hunt Opens Here Today With TV Broadcast."

It was later estimated that 20 to 30 million Americans dropped everything for a few days to watch the spectacle of senators questioning notable gangsters. And the star witness was the man believed to be the most powerful mob boss in the country, Frank Costello.

Costello, who was born in Italy as Francesco Castiglia in 1891, grew up on the New York City streets and made his first fortune as a bootlegger. By 1951 he was believed to control a criminal empire while also exerting enormous influence on New York City politics.

Television viewers heard Costello's testimony, but saw a peculiar camera shot of his hands resting on the witness table. The New York Times, on March 14, 1951, explained:

"Because Costello objected to television on the ground that it would violate the privacy between witness and counsel, Senator O'Conor instructed the television operator not to direct his camera to the witness. As a result all others in the hearing room were televised and viewers caught only an occasional glimpse of Costello's hands and less frequently a passing glimpse of his face."

Viewers didn't mind. They eagerly watched the flickering black-and-white image of Costello's hands as senators spent a few days peppering him with questions. At times senators even threatened to take action to revoke his American citizenship. Costello mostly parried the grilling with streetwise humor.

When a senator asked him what, if anything he had ever done to be a good citizen of the United States, Costello quipped, "I paid my tax."

Teamsters Boss Jimmy Hoffa Tangled With the Kennedys

Photograph of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa testifying before U.S. Senate committee
Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa testifying before Senate committee. Keystone/Getty Images

Legendary tough guy and Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa was the star witness at two sets of Senate hearings, in 1957 and 1958. A committee investigating abuses in labor unions, known commonly as the "Rackets Committee," featured two telegenic stars, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and his brother Robert, who served as the committee's counsel.

The Kennedy brothers did not care for Hoffa, and Hoffa despised the Kennedys. Before a fascinated public, witness Hoffa and questioner Bobby Kennedy vigorously displayed opencontempt for each other. Hoffa emerged from the hearings essentially unscathed. Some observers thought the way he was treated during the hearings may have helped him become the president of the Teamsters Union.

The open antagonism between Hoffa and the Kennedys endured.

JFK, of course, became president, RFK became attorney general, and the Kennedy Justice Department became determined to put Hoffa in jail. By the end of the 1960s, both Kennedys had been assassinated and Hoffa was in federal prison.

In 1975 Hoffa, out of jail, went to meet someone for lunch. He was never seen again. The main characters from the raucous hearings of the Rackets Committee had passed into history, leaving behind countless conspiracy theories.

Mobster Joe Valachi Revealed Mafia Secrets

Photograph of crowded hearing room as mobster Joseph Valachi testified before Senate committee.
Mobster Joseph Valachi testified before a Senate committee and drew a crowd of journalists. Washington Bureau/Archive Photos/Getty Images

On September 27, 1963, a soldier in a New York City Mafia family, Joe Valachi, began testifying before a Senate subcommittee investigating organized crime. In a gravelly voice, Valachi casually recalled mob hits and exposed other deep secrets of the nationwide syndicate he called "Cosa Nostra."  Television viewers were fascinated as Valachi described rituals such as mob initiations and a "kiss of death" he received from Vito Genovese, whom he described as the "boss of bosses."

Valachi was being held in federal protective custody, and newspaper reports noted that federal marshals escorted him into the hearing room. Other undercover marshals were scattered through the room. He survived his testimony and died of natural causes in prison a few years later.

The spectacle of Joe Valachi facing down a table of senators inspired scenes in "Godfather: Part II." A book, The Valachi Papers, became a best seller and spawned its own movie starring Charles Bronson. And for years most of what the public, and law enforcement, knew about life in the mob was based on what Valachi had told the senators.

1973 Senate Hearings Exposed Depth of the Watergate Scandal

Photograph of 1973 Senate Watergate committee hearing.
Details of Watergate emerged at 1973 Senate hearings. Gene Forte/Getty Images

The 1973 hearings of a Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal had it all: villains and good guys, dramatic revelations, comic moments, and astonishing news value. Many of the secrets of the Watergate scandal were revealed on live daytime television throughout the summer of 1973.

Viewers heard about secret campaign slush funds and about startling dirty tricks. Nixon's former White House counsel, John Dean, testified that the president held meetings in which he oversaw the cover-up of the Watergate burglary and engaged in other obstructions of justice.

The entire country was fascinated as major characters from the Nixon White House spent days at the witness table. But it was an obscure Nixon aide, Alexander Butterfield, who provided the startling revelation that transformed Watergate into a Constitutional crisis.

Before a television audience on July 16, 1973, Butterfield revealed that Nixon had a taping system in the White House.

A headline on the front page of the New York Times the following day foretold the coming legal fight: "Nixon Wired His Phone, Offices, to Record All Conversations; Senators Will Seek the Tapes."

An unlikely and instantaneous star of the hearings was Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina. After two decades on Capitol Hill, he was known mainly for opposing Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. But when chairing the committee that grilled the Nixon team, Ervin was transformed into a wise grandfatherly figure. A stream of folksy anecdotes obscured that he was a Harvard educated lawyer considered the Senate's leading authority on the Constitution.

The ranking Republican member of the committee, Howard Baker of Tennessee, spoke a line which is still often quoted. Questioning John Dean on June 29, 1973, he said,  "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

House Impeachment Hearings in 1974 Doomed Nixon Presidency

Photograph of House impeachment hearings in 1974.
Chairman Peter Rodino (with gavel) at the 1974 impeachment hearings. Keystone/Getty Images

A second set of Watergate hearings were held during the summer of 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee ultimately voted for articles of impeachment against President Nixon.

The House hearings were different than the Senate hearings the previous summer. The members were essentially reviewing evidence, including transcripts of White House tapes Nixon had reluctantly provided, and much of the work was done out of public view.

The drama in the 1974 House hearings came not from witnesses called to testify, but from members of the committee debating proposed articles of impeachment.

Committee chairman Peter Rodino of New Jersey did not become a media sensation the way Sam Ervin had a year earlier. But Rodino ran a professional hearing and was generally praised for his sense of fairness.

The committee ultimately voted to send three articles of impeachment to the House of Repesentatives. And Richard Nixon resigned the presidency before he was officially impeached by the entire House.

Celebrities Have Often Appeared Before Congressional Committees

Photograph of singer Alanis Morissette testifying before a U.S. Senate committee.
Singer Alanis Morissette testifying before a Senate committee. Alex Wong/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Congressional hearings are often good at generating publicity, and over the years a number of celebrities have testified on Capitol Hill to bring attention to causes. In 1985, musician Frank Zappa testified before a Senate committee to denounce a proposal to censor music aimed at children. At the same hearing, John Denver testified that some radio stations refused to play "Rocky Mountain High," as they considered it to be about drugs.

In 2001, musicians Alanis Morissette and Don Henley testified to a Senate committee on the topic of internet legislation and its impact on artists. Charlton Heston once testified about guns, Jerry Lewis testified about muscular dystrophy, Michael J. Fox testified about stem cell research, the the drummer for Metallica, Lars Ulrich, testified about music copyrights.

In 2002, a muppet from Sesame Street, Elmo, testified before a House subcommittee, urging members of Congress to support music in schools.

Hearings Can Accelerate Political Careers

Photograph of photographers surrounded Senator Barack Obama at Senate hearing.
Photographers surround Senator Barack Obama at 2008 hearing. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Besides making news, congressional hearings can make careers. Harry Truman was a senator from Missouri who rose to national prominence as chairman of a committee that investigated profiteering during World War Two. His reputation leading the Truman Committee prompted Franklin Roosevelt to add him as his running mate in 1944, and Truman became president when Roosevelt died in April 1945.

Richard Nixon also rose to prominence while serving on the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s. And there's no doubt that John F. Kennedy's work on the Senate's Rackets Committee, and his denunciations of Jimmy Hoffa, helped set up his run for the White House in 1960.

In recent years, a freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, attracted attention in committee hearings by expressing skepticism of the Iraq War. As seen in the photo above, at a hearing in the spring of 2008, Obama found himself the target of photographers who normally would have been focused on the star witness, General David Petraeus.

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McNamara, Robert. "Historic Congressional Hearings." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/historic-congressional-hearings-4141714. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Historic Congressional Hearings. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-congressional-hearings-4141714 McNamara, Robert. "Historic Congressional Hearings." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/historic-congressional-hearings-4141714 (accessed January 23, 2021).