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Why The Appearance Of High-Profile Witnesses Before Congress Is Appealing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Democrats in the House are summoning past and present members of the Trump administration to testify before committees. Often, witnesses in hearings like these do not reveal a lot that isn't already publicly known. But every so often in history, there has been a bombshell like the one that exploded during the Watergate investigation.

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FRED THOMPSON: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: I was aware of listening devices. Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: That's from the 1970s. White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that there were Oval Office tape recordings - recordings that led to the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon. So let's ask Cokie about the history of high-profile witnesses before Congress - commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us each week to talk about how politics and the government work.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Really basic question here, comes from Lori Tack who asks, who decides which people are or aren't allowed to share their testimony?

ROBERTS: The committee involved decides. And that can be quite controversial because they not only decide who is called but also who is not called.

INSKEEP: Next question has to do with the effectiveness of the testimony of those who are called.

CHASE MCGEE: Hi. My name is Chase McGee from Durham, N.C. When it comes to expenditure, who successfully promoted the greatest piece of legislation? Fred Rogers comes to mind.

ROBERTS: Good memory, Mr. McGee. In 1969, Mr. Rogers appeared on behalf of the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And when he was finished, Senator John Pastore said, quote, "looks like you just earned the 20 million." Now, of course, it wasn't quite that simple. Others in Congress had to go along, but Mr. Rogers made that much easier.

INSKEEP: Celebrities, besides Mr. Rogers, have testified over the years. Jon Stewart was on Capitol Hill just the other day, testifying on behalf of 9/11 first responders. But do celebrity witnesses of that kind bring results?

ROBERTS: Well, sure. Some of them are real experts. Think of Michael J. Fox testifying about Parkinson's, Christopher Reeve on stem cell research. But look. What celebrities bring is attention, and that's why members of Congress ask them to testify. The members use them, whether they're experts or not, to shine a light on some cause they're interested in.

INSKEEP: Then there's one more question.

LEO LEONTIADES: Hi. This is Leo Leontiades from Gainesville, Fla. I was wondering if any of these high-profile congressional witnesses have ever gone on to a political career.

ROBERTS: Funny he should ask. Take a listen to this celebrity's testimony before a House subcommittee in 1993.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To sit here and listen as people are saying that there's no organized crime, that there's no money laundering, that there's no anything, is almost unbelievable to me.

ROBERTS: That was Donald Trump, alleging that Native American casinos were operated by the mob and gave his casinos unfair competition because they didn't pay taxes. The subcommittee absolutely didn't buy his argument. And then there was Ronald Reagan, who was head of the Screen Actors Guild, testified before the House on the American Activities Committee in 1947.

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RONALD REAGAN: We have done a pretty good job in our business of keeping those people's activities curtailed. We have exposed their lies when we came across them.

ROBERTS: And he was, of course, talking about communists there. The man who asked Alexander Butterfield that question at the beginning of our talk about listening devices, that man was Fred Thompson - then counsel for the Watergate Committee. He went on to a Senate career as well as a star turn on TV.

INSKEEP: He was a celebrity after the hearing. Wow.

ROBERTS: There you go (laughter).

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

Cokie, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.