Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On Monday night, at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, an audience was treated to a powerful live reading of “The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts,” by stars including John Lithgow, Jason Alexander, Annette Bening, Kyra Sedgwick and Alyssa Milano. The play, written by the Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Schenkkan, was a dramatization of the Mueller Report that used the actual text for dialogue.
In an email interview with me, Schenkkan explained that he wrote the play out of frustration that the Trump administration had been “successful in obstructing the narrative” from the moment that Attorney General William Barr outlined the findings.
Given the partisan political climate, the play seemed to be undertaking the role of Congress – bringing the findings to life and giving the public a sort of thorough congressional hearing that we simply have not seen yet.
The results were powerful. The actors narrated parts of the action, using text from the report, while others acted out the lines as if they were the people in the report. Seeing Lithgow, as President Trump, delivering lines with furious indignation about closing down the “witchhunt” investigation and barking orders to his staff to follow through carried a much greater wallop than reading the dry text.
The actors reading about the infamous Trump Tower meeting, and subsequent cover up of what happened, paint a more damning picture when heard out loud. Michael Shannon, playing White House Counsel Don McGahn, offered devastating depictions of the moments this top counsel pushed back directly against Trumps’s efforts to obstruct and lie about what he had done. After the cast reads out loud the ten possible acts of obstruction, Zachary Quinto’s recitation of Attorney General Barr’s summary sounds more misleading than ever.
Thorough congressional hearings have always been an important form of political theater. Hearings have historically served the function of focusing public attention on pertinent issues and educating the public about problems – from failed policies to political corruption – that have plagued Washington.
Since the release of the Mueller Report, House Democrats have struggled to shed light on the contents of the report and its implications. Instead, Americans have been left with a lengthy and complicated document which on its own is unlikely to stimulate a political response.
When approached by the producers to write the play, which was also live-streamed, Schenkkan agreed to take on the job. He is a playwright who knows how to bring politics to life. In the Tony award winning “All the Way” (which was also a film on HBO starring Bryan Cranston), he gave audiences a gripping look at President Lyndon B. Johnson, the era’s tangled legislative process, and the key public policy issues in the 1960s in a compelling way that most journalists or historians would have had trouble carrying off.
The play focuses on 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice. Actors including Kevin Kline, Ben McKenzie, Alfre Woodard, Gina Gershon, and Aidan Quinn, helped bring to life the devastating findings from the Mueller report on just how far President Donald Trump was willing to go to stifle a major investigation into his administration and into Russian interference in the election.
In contrast to the way that President Trump and Attorney General Barr have depicted the report, Schenkkan’s play shows that Mueller’s team documented a shocking abuse of presidential power. Billed as “The Play That Attorney General William Barr Doesn’t Want You To See,” according to the press release, “The Investigation” is a dramatic counterpoint to the disinformation campaign that came out of the administration.
Schenkkan’s hope was to use the arts so that the play’s audience would gain a better sense of the report’s contents which have been discussed extensively and even became a best-selling book – but not clearly or fully read.
In early May, a CNN poll found that only 3% of those polled had read “all the report,” 24% said they read some of it. Three- quarters of those polled said that they had not read any of it.
Nor is it clear that many Americans who have read the report can really grasp its full implications.
“The notion that any significant portion of the populace will take it upon themselves to spend the multiple hours required to read a 450 page report is sadly unrealistic,” said McKenzie, the star of “Gotham,” who played Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr. in the play.
Schenkkan told me that the report, though detailed and comprehensive, was not easy to read.
“The ‘story’ tends to get lost. A theatrical event like this makes the story very clear and easy to understand. It gives focus and emotion,” he said in his email. Artists, he wrote, “surface the stories that need to be told and do so in a way which people can absorb. They provoke introspection, conversation and a sense of community – all of which are sorely lacking right now.”
This play, along with other comparable efforts – such as a graphic novel that is in the works based on the report – addresses one of the most fundamental flaws in the investigation: Without any substantive congressional hearings comparable to the Watergate committee in 1973, Democrats who favored the impeachment process would never really have a chance to sway the public.
President Trump, who is a product of the television era and seems to have little appetite for reading, may have understood that the fact that the investigation came out as a written report – without complementary congressional investigations – would work to his political advantage. Regardless of the substance of Mueller’s findings, much of the public debate would revolve around interpretations of the findings rather than thorough readings of what Mueller’s team discovered.
What’s gone wrong? Partisan polarization is the most obvious culprit. Republicans have refused to join Democrats in convening serious hearings into the allegations. Senate Republicans have been saying that the case is closed.
With Republicans locked into an oppositional stance, and most Republican voters unwilling to break with the President, the potential for full-blown hearings is nil.
And the hearings that are convened take place on a fragmented and partisan media universe that makes it incredibly hard to break through to the public. The world of the news media is much different than the world of entertainment where high profile productions – such as Game of Thrones – still have the capacity to produce national conversations.
In the current media universe, conservative television networks like Fox News or web sites like Breitbart won’t give a deep dive into the Mueller report the time of day. Instead, their talent primarily repeats the President’s talking points.
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And presidential power has been crucial. The President has simply rejected the idea of congressional oversight. He used Attorney General Barr to spread a narrative about the findings that contradicted what people who did read it actually saw. The President has stopped key people from testifying and when they have, like Hope Hicks, they have said nothing.
The highest profile testimony so far has come from John Dean, a member of the Nixon administration who has little to do with Trump’s scandal other than providing commentary. Faced with such a brazen use of presidential power, Democrats have been flummoxed in their efforts to teach the public.
With the broken state of Washington, perhaps it is time for playwrights, moviemakers, actors, and others from the world of culture to step in and fill the void. Otherwise, it seems almost impossible to shake the public into the kind of deep engagement that is necessary at times when our political institutions are under serious strain. “The Investigation” is a timely reminder that the giant political thud that could be heard in Washington when Mueller’s report landed was not a result of its contents but rather the inability of Congress to translate the findings for the public.