James Fallows: What history teaches us about uncovering coverups

James Fallows: What history teaches us about uncovering coverups

There's so much we don't know about the Mueller report. But here are two things we do, if history is any guide.

One is the difference between drama and action.

In fiction we hunger for the suspenseful turning point – in novels from Sherlock Holmes right through "Gone Girl," in courtroom dramas from the classic "Witness for the Prosecution" to the latest "NCIS." The riveting element in them all is the big reveal, the shocking secret, the moment when the buried truth comes out and everything looks different all at once.

Public life contains enough drama that you could easily imagine that it works at the same pace. Consider John Dean's testimony against Richard Nixon at the Watergate hearings; or the memorable dressing down, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" that the lawyer Joseph Welch delivered to the reckless Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.

But consider what happened next: A year after Dean's testimony, Nixon was still in office. He held on for 14 months after the hearing. It took half a year for the Senate to censure McCarthy.

The Pentagon Papers came out amid intense legal drama in 1971. Nearly four years later, U.S. troops were still leaving Vietnam.

Public life does not work at the speed of a movie. Wherever this process leads, it is likely nearer its beginning than its end.

The other thing we know is that democracies do better with more information, and worse with less. Making voluminous public records public doesn't ensure agreement or squash conspiracy thinking – there are disputes over JFK's assassination half a century on. But in our times, the surest way to increase suspicion and undermine trust would be to handle this information in any way that could be considered a "coverup."    

"Let it come out, let people see it," President Trump said last week of the Mueller report. On this point, history backs him up.

      
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