The Comey Hearing and Our Dangerous Obsession with Political Spectacle

Politics Features James Comey
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The Comey Hearing and Our Dangerous Obsession with Political Spectacle

In the days preceding former FBI Director James Comey’s appearance before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Thursday—as bombshell after bombshell dropped in the major papers Tuesday evening, or after the release of Comey’s written statement to the panel Wednesday afternoon—more than one observer in my Twitter feed, a mix of film and TV critics and political journalists, began to describe such reports as “spoilers,” as if an upcoming episode of Scandal had suddenly leaked online.

It’s a striking notion, not least because its basis is the pleasure principle: To have the next installment of one’s favorite melodrama “spoiled” by the revelation of one or another plot twist suggests that the point is the element of surprise, and not the consequences for the characters or the advancement of the narrative. Even in the realm of fiction, this concern is often suspect: Knowing that Norman Bates knifes Marion Crane does little to lessen Psycho’s peerless suspense. In the realm of fact—in this case, Comey’s testimony on what’s come to be called “the Russia probe,” and the president’s possible obstruction thereof—it’s rather more troubling, underscoring the sense, not mine alone, that the spectacle of our state of crisis has begun to hobble our capacity to confront it. Sunlight may indeed be the best disinfectant, but when it comes to politics and the power of television, it appears we prefer to huddle in the dark.

With wall-to-wall coverage of the hearing in the works, not only on CNN and MSNBC—for which the constant swirl of controversies has been a ratings boon—but also on Fox News, the broadcast networks, radio stations and websites, it’s no wonder that Comey would be treated as a special guest star in the midst of May sweeps, bringing The Russia Probe to the close of its breakout first season. (As the network’s chairman, Les Moonves, confessed during the campaign, Trump’s taste for drama “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”) The question, as Comey stood to recite the oath—familiar from pop culture even if you’ve never been in a courtroom—was whether the widespread desire for theatrics might detract from the threat the president poses to the country.

Naysayers (some labeled them “scolds”) warned of the seriousness of the matter at hand: “This is not a television show,” Sen. Kamala Harris told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY. “This is about the office of the President of the United States.” Others noted that, amid the attention paid to Comey, Republicans had set about dismantling Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, echoing, in more sedate terms, the “three-dimensional chess” genre of political analysis, in which each day’s firestorm can be reinterpreted as a “distraction” from Trump’s insidious agenda.

“Distraction,” in this context, implies forethought on the administration’s part, which is the strong suit of exactly no one in the White House. The more apt term, perhaps—and this is where television comes into play—is “oversaturation,” the feeling that one is drowning in stories to follow, articles to read, programs to watch, conversations to join, arguments to wage. The defining feature of our historical moment is this inundation, as wave after wave of “content” crashes onto our screens, and so threatens to drag us under the foaming surface once and for all.

As a result, the participation of reporters, commentators, politicians and even Comey himself in framing the hearing as “event television” seems both a desperate attempt to direct our notice, whether for craven purposes or noble ones, and an admission that substance has long since lost its war with spectacle. “Welcome to the Comey show,” Politco’s Hadas Gold tweeted before Comey came into chamber. “Comey isn’t going to repeat his cinematic written statement,” the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale added later. There were references to the president’s now-infamous embrace of the former FBI Director as “the hug/curtain scene”; to the resemblance between Sen. Martin Heinrich and House of Cards’ Will Conway, played by Joel Kinnaman; to “the date night plotline” introduced when Comey told the committee that his dinner with Trump had forced him to cancel plans with his wife.

“This hearing is just a trailer for the closed session,” Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri cracked at one point, referring to Comey’s careful avoidance of classified information, though of course the gag landed because it rang terribly true: In the atomized atmosphere breathed by American officials and those tasked with covering them, its division of 321 million people across 3.8 million square miles into red states and blue states, heartland conservatives and coastal elites, hillbilly elegies and liberal enclaves, the one remaining inclination we can be counted on to share is the longing to be entertained.

To wit, Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, began his opening statement with a promise to summarize “every twist and turn of the investigation”—a real-life “previously on…” montage. Cable news contributors and columnists recalled Comey’s “riveting” testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007—a preview of this week’s “must-see” TV. Comey himself opened with a series of engrossing remarks, accusing the Trump administration of defamation, created more than one quotable catchphrase (“Lordy,” “no fuzz,” “seagulls on the beach”) and joined Sen. Angus King in an almost Shakespearean allusion to the murder of Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” If the hearing emerged, over the course of more than two hours, as proof that the (immense, frightening, surreal) power of television remains intact, even in an age that combines inundation and atomization to an unprecedented degree, it also exposed the danger of oversaturation, which is its deadening effect: The spectacle must grow ever larger, as we become inured to it, in order to make a dent.

One need not scorn the hosts of viewing parties—I, for one, could have used a mimosa this morning—or spoil the fun—I, too, watched the hearing utterly rapt, and made a few jesting comments on Twitter—to point out that the mechanisms by which Comey, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the political press have managed to hold our attention are those by which Trump himself came to power, assistance from Russia’s “active measures” campaign notwithstanding. The skillful deployment of political melodrama, drawn from soap operas and daytime talk shows, tabloids and reality TV, has always been, as I wrote nearly a year ago, at the heart of Trumpism, and one of its signal dangers. Despite the fear of “spoilers” that accompanied our breathless interest in “the Comey show,” despite the emphasis on the element of surprise, one could see the consequences of political spectacle’s (immense, frightening, surreal) power coming from a mile away. In truth, it isn’t surprising at all.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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