Famous congressional hearings that gripped the nation

Hearings that changed history

Today's highly-anticipated James Comey testimony could help define the Trump presidency, but this will not be the first time congressional hearings have gripped the nation.

To put this in context, the fired FBI director's hearing is just one of a handful of congressional hearings that have risen to the level of being broadcast live on network television, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid. 

In a 1954 hearing, Army lawyer Joseph Welch expressed frustration with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his ruthless anti-Communist crusade.

"Until this moment, senator, I think I never fully gauged your cruelty or your recklessness," Welch said in the hearing.

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Army Counsel Joseph Welch, right, derides as "a perfect phony" the letter Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) injected into hearings on his row with Army officials, May 5, 1954.  AP

"Have you no sense of decency, sir?" he also said.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek remembers when then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson arranged for a television network to broadcast the congressional testimony.

"And Johnson knew this: that once they saw McCarthy with his five o'clock shadow… and having people see how rude and abusive he could be… it undercut him terribly," Dallek said.

Years later in 1966, the Vietnam hearings exposed a stunning admission.

"I think our military involvement in Vietnam has to be recognized as unfortunate, as something we would not choose deliberately if the choice were ours to make all over again today," Ambassador George Kennan said.

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In this Feb. 10, 1966 photo, a general views of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Vietnam in Washington. George Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow, is at the witness table. Henry Griffin / AP

The U.S. was stuck in a war it was unlikely to win.

"It raised questions about what was the purpose of it? Why were we fighting there?" Dallek said. 

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Lt. Col. Oliver North, ending months of silence, gestures while testifying before the joint House-Senate panels investigating the Iran-Contra affair on Capitol Hill, July 7, 1987. North said he "never personally discussed" the diversion of the Iranian arms sales profits to Contra rebels with President Reagan. LANA HARRIS / AP

From the Iran-Contra affair hearing in 1987 to the infamous Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas testimonies in 1991, public hearings have become part politics, part theater.

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Professor Anita F. Hill testifies before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on the confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas to be Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on October 11, 1991.  Arnie Sachs/CNP/AP

Americans watched as Bill Clinton became the second president in U.S. history to undergo an impeachment trial.

"It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is," Clinton said in 1998.  

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In this Nov. 19, 1998 photo, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill. presides over the committee's impeachment hearing for President Bill Clinton, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Joe Marquette / AP

People watched again when Hillary Clinton endured an 11-hour grilling from the House Benghazi committee.

"I have been racking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done," Clinton said in 2015.

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies during a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Longworth Building, October 22, 2015. The 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, took the lives of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.  Tom Williams / AP

The most explosive hearing of all was Watergate, which uncovered the extent of the cover up by the Nixon administration.

"I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency," former White House counsel John Dean said in 1973.

What began with a burglary ended with President Nixon's resignation.

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Former White House aide John Dean III is sworn in by Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, D-N.C., Monday, June 25, 1973.  AP

"And so of course it leads up to these Comey hearings, which creates a sense of anticipation… that people may hear something that's going to change the course of history," Dallek said. "It's a kind of new national soap opera."