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“We need something to head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort.”
It was November 24, 1963, and that was the message from the Justice Department’s number-two to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s press adviser, Bill Moyers. There was already too much flim-flam in the air about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination two days earlier in Dallas. A politicized series of public hearings would invite grandstanding from lawmakers. The Justice Department, still run by the late-President’s brother, was hardly an unbiased power center. And the Dallas’ detectives’ report simply couldn’t be the definitive word on the traumatic and public slaying of Kennedy in Dealey Plaza.
So then-Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach sat down that Sunday evening and wrote a memo that would lay the groundwork for what we today call the Warren Commission. LBJ launched the project with an executive order five days later, and 10 months from that, the commissioners had what Katzenbach and company had hoped would be the final word on the assassination. The 26-volume final report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone to assassinate Kennedy and Jack Ruby worked alone to kill Oswald.
Yet, despite its mountains of documents and trove of testimony, there are some in this country who still doubt the official story. Those who don’t buy the lone-gunman theory believe someone on the grassy knoll worked as a second sniper, that the Soviets or Cubans or unions — maybe the troika working in concert, even — were behind at least some of the plot. Others believe that it was the U.S. Deep State working to take government into their own hands.
Why does this matter today? Look at the conflicted narratives America is telling itself about what took place on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. On that day, as Congress was scheduled to certify Joe Biden’s win over then-President Donald Trump, the incumbent appeared at a rally about a mile away and helped to whip his supporters into a frenzy. The mob then marched on the Capitol, where they breached the building’s barricades for the first time since 1814, ransacked parts of it, and sent members of Congress into hiding. Five people died. In another country, it might be called a failed coup.
Congress responded with its own bit of history, making Trump the first and only President to have been twice impeached. Both times, he escaped conviction because his hold over the Republican Party remained so strong that lawmakers decided they had little choice but to spare him the indignity of an early removal. Even in exile, Trump maintains a dominance over his adoptive party.
Since then, certain factions of the Republican party have summoned an alternative history of that day into being. OAN, a right-wing alternative to Fox News, has consistently fed the false narrative that it was actually left-wing Antifa groups who stormed the Capitol and that we still don’t really know who is the legitimate President. About 1-in-5 self-described conservatives get their news from OAN, according to a Pew survey. And half of Republicans, according to Reuters, buy the lie that the protests on Jan. 6 were either peaceful or the handiwork of leftists. We are living through a contemporary Zapruder film.
Which brings us to this unfortunate sputtering at the Capitol these days. Plans for a bipartisan panel to investigate the events of Jan. 6, modeled on the Warren Commission or the more recent 9/11 Commission, are stuck in neutral, if not sliding between gears back down the steep hill. Republicans have consistently said they don’t want to limit the review to the mob that descended on the Capitol in January, but instead want its scope to be widened to include Antifa, Black Lives Matter and the protests that have emerged for racial justice. Democrats liken that push to having the 9/11 Commission include an investigation into the riots in Cincinnati that followed the 2001 killing of an unarmed Black man during a traffic stop.
The panel’s membership has also been a sticking point. As first introduced by Democrats, it would have enjoyed a 7-to-4 tilt in Democrats’ favor — a non-starter for the GOP, who insist they want equal representation between parties, as was the case on the 9/11 Commission.
The 9/11 Commission, to be sure, had its problems. The Washington Post did a phenomenal job summarizing them last month, starting with the credibility-denting fact that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would agree to testify but only if they were together and not under oath. The commissioner chairs wrote of their own self-diagnosed woes in a tell-all book after they finished their government report. Two years later, Phil Shenon of The New York Times released his own must-read history of the commission.
What the 9/11 Commission did accomplish was to give a set of established facts and a path forward. The timeline and ticktock of that commission’s work now stands as a national canon for the events of that day. Even so, there are 9/11 Truthers — those who stand outside some conservative events and chant “Nine-Eleven Was An Inside Job,” although anecdotally their ranks have shrunk over the years.
Pelosi and her allies in Congress warn they could be heading toward a similarly ambiguous understanding of what happened on Jan. 6 and who was to blame. As my colleagues Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan argued persuasively, the more recent events are probably the most-documented crimes in history, with thousands of hours of security footage from the fisheye lenses on Capitol light poles, ceilings and checkpoints, not to mention that so many of the insurrectionists posted their melee in real time on social media sites. Even so, America is divided on who is responsible.
As it stands now, seven House committees are already conducting their own investigations into the day, asking at least 16 agencies to send along what they know about the planning for the day. Last week, Pelosi told USA Today that she might appoint a select committee to look into the violence, too, an effort to restart talks about punting the whole mess to a commission that doesn’t have an explicit political investment in the findings.
A senior Democratic aide told me yesterday a few things are informing the party’s continued pursuit of a commission at the moment even if it seems Republican intransigence seems durable. The first is there is this reality: for a commission to get a congressional charter, it needs to win over 60 votes in the Senate. At best, Democrats can get to 51 without GOP buy-in. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his House partner, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, would get to name the Republicans’ picks, so they need to sign-on. Absent GOP support, a single-party commission simply won’t have the backing that the 9/11 and Kennedy panels enjoyed. With something so political, you need to get its internal politics right before you can ask the public to endorse it.
A commission cannot heal America’s divisions. But without a dispassionate look into happened and why — the very definition of history — it falls to politicians and their competing motivators to write this chapter. No draft produced by the witnesses themselves will leave anyone feeling confident that they got it right. There’s a reason why Bobby Kennedy didn’t get to investigate his brother’s assassination, why victims don’t get votes in the jury room and why in most cases politicians leave the tough pronouncements to neutral outsiders. At a moment when it’s actually advised for politicians to kick the can to someone else, they’re choosing not to lace up.
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