It was a moment of American political drama that probably would have been rejected by the likes of Aaron Sorkin — the White House story spinner behind The West Wing and The American President — as too darned implausible.
A wronged woman at the center of the scandal that imperils Donald Trump’s presidency — the ousted American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch — had just finished more than six hours testifying before the House impeachment inquiry. She’d given a voice to the bewilderment of a 33-year, award-winning career diplomat who suddenly found herself target of a smear campaign in her own country, parried sometimes hostile questioning from GOP reps, and — in what could only be called a dull surprise — was asked to respond in real time to a bullying Twitter assault from the 45th president of the United States.
Now, at 3:20 p.m. on a Friday, her long day was ending in chaos. In the front of the room, an insistent Republican Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas was shouting “Mr. Chairman!” over and over again, demanding the hearing not adjourn because he needed to defend the reputation of his fellow GOPer. The House Intelligence Committee chairman, the California Democrat Adam Schiff, cut off Conaway’s mic, but the silence only lasted a second or two.
Behind Yovanovitch, a woman in the gallery stood up and started applauding. Then another woman did the same, joined by several more, then much of the room. The standing ovation echoed across the Longworth House Office Building hearing room, surprising observers who’d never seen anything quite like this — not during Watergate, Iran-Contra, or any other high drama on Capitol Hill.
It would be hyperbole, perhaps — in such a bitterly divided country — to say that for one remarkable day, we were all Marie Yovanovitch. But many of us were. Politically, in the crisis at hand, the 61-year-old career diplomat and daughter of Ukrainian émigrés moved the ball forward on the Trump impeachment — making it clear why the president and his designated hit man Rudy Giuliani wanted to get an ardent anticorruption fighter out of Kyiv before foisting an indecent proposal on Ukraine’s new president.
But culturally, America had a moment last week that no one really saw coming. Yovanovitch’s tour de force testimony built upon the momentum from Day One of the impeachment inquiry, when two previously unknown diplomats — the nattily bow-tied George P. Kent, “the third generation of my family to have chosen a career in public service,” and the movie-trailer-voiced William Taylor, a Bronze Star combat veteran of Vietnam — held center stage. Each told a variation of the same story — quiet, productive lives serving what they saw as America’s best interests, upended by a sudden invasion of grifters and buffoons.
The clueless Beltway pundits who attacked the Kent and Taylor testimony as lacking “pizzazz” didn’t only make the predictable mistake of confusing constitutional government for a reality show, but missed the point that the lack of pizzazz was a feature, not a bug. An early poll found the biggest chunk (41 percent) of folks following the hearings thought the case for impeachment was strengthened. I think that’s in part because the hearings were such a stark reminder that life in America has become fundamentally unfair. People who play by the rules — like Marie Yovanovitch — or who try to blow the whistle on all of the wrongdoing are smeared, crushed, or tossed aside. They get thrown under the clown car of con artists, inside traders and entitled heirs yelling into their cell phones that a moral compass and sober careerism is for “losers.”
The real silent majority of Americans are folks who did everything the way they were told and yet fall farther behind, or get a phone call in the middle of the night like Yovanovitch did, telling her it’s all over after 33 years and not really explaining why. Most of us looked at the TV last week and saw — in Yovanovitch, Kent and Taylor — a reflection of ourselves, or, perhaps more accurately, the kind of people we aspire to be.
Remember that throughout the 34 months of Trump’s presidency, the millions of us who’ve been appalled watching this White House plow through the guardrails of democratic norms on an authoritarian bus plunge have asked where are the good people — the adults who know this is wrong, who’ve seen something and have the courage to say something? Yovanovitch, Kent, and Taylor are the ones we’ve been waiting for. In particular, Yovanovitch spoke out even after the State Department had told its staffers not to testify, and after revelations that Trump had threatened, Mafia-style, that “she’s going to go through some things.” No wonder she got the kind of thunderous applause Americans usually save for game-ending interceptions.
But you don’t have to work under the Trump administration to relate to the 99 Percent trying to hold things together in a world where the 1 Percent is grabbing for everything. An American president who looks at a struggling democracy of 44 million Ukrainians and wonders what he can extract for his own political gain seems staggeringly unfit yet also not so unusual in a world where the young CEO of a company like WeWork can misrepresent the company and self deal and still walk away with a $1.7 billion check while rank-and-file workers face layoffs. In my own chosen field of newspapers, how do we make sense of companies like Lee Enterprises that pay large bonuses to executives while its journalists struggle to pay bills. The unfairness of 21st century America is the backstory for last week’s morality play in Washington.
Before the hearings began, there was a ton of speculation about whether D.C. hearings with unknown witnesses could cut through the reality-TV miasma of a nation slowly amusing itself to death. But the spirit of the Trump impeachment is, in fact, very much in sync with the fictional TV series that arguably best captures the hellscape of 2019′s actual reality, HBO’s Succession. Its warfare among the psychologically damaged offspring of an ailing media mogul is a story that is broadly based on the Rupert Murdoch clan, with more than a smidgen of the dysfunctional Trump family ... and maybe some similarity to your own employer.
Succession succeeds despite its largely unlikable crew (except for the young Greg, the bro-nephew whose initial “Whoa, dude” reaction to the unethical swamp all around him makes him the series’ Everyman) because it take us deep inside the world that is slowly suffocating all of us — vanity power plays among billionaires who see their human employees as chess pieces who can be laid off to impress Daddy or goose the share price. Fans are already seeing the similarities in Ukraine-gate, that players like wealthy-Trump-ally-made-unqualified-EU-ambassador Gordon Sondland are essentially Succession’s Tom Wambsgans (h/t Josh Marshall), the son-in-law whose glib denseness never impedes his ambitions and eagerness to please.
The America of Succession is also the America of Trump that an unseen army of diplomats, bureaucrats and people with actual training and skills and a quaint nostalgia for ethics have been toiling to save us from. In doing so, loyal Americans like Taylor, Kent and Yovanovitch know that the authoritarian bullies at Fox News or Rush Limbaugh will laugh at them as “nerds” — when they’re not inflating them as agents of a “Deep State,” which seems like a disingenuous way to describe a professional class that actually gets things done. They also know a fat-fingered tyrant in the Oval Office is unleashing a rabid army of Twitter followers to assault their reputations and their privacy. And yet they cling to the same sense of duty that caused Bill Taylor to stay in Vietnam an extra six months and to pack his bags for Kyiv 50 years later, when no one needs this kind of aggravation.
The current political drama on Capitol Hill also may be the last stand for that sense of decency and principle, for the notion that playing by the rules still means something in America. The emotional catharsis of watching a fearless woman stand up to the misogynistic hectoring of the 45th president will only go so far. In a matter of weeks, the just train of impeachment will collide with the self-serving ambition of a Republican Senate whose fealty to retaining power makes Succession’s Waystar Royco look like a good-government nonprofit. We’ll soon learn whether that applause Yovanovitch heard on Friday afternoon was merely the beginning of a rising public crescendo, or a poignant goodbye to what once actually made America great.