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Memorable hearings in American history

It may have been unprecedented today for Condoleezza Rice, but through the years, the U.S. Congress has summoned dozens of remarkable figures to the witness table.
U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, right, speaks to his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, during a hearing of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in Washington in this April 22, 1954 file photo. Byron Rollins / AP file

As I sat in the Hart office building and watched Condoleezza Rice testify in a packed hearing room before the 9/11 commission, the entire scene reminded me of the movie "Contact."

Near the end, Jodi Foster's character testifies about what seemed to be a massive government failure. Foster sits by herself at a lengthy table, with lawmakers looking down at her and hundreds of stern observers watching from behind. The loneliness was dramatic.

So too was the real-life testimony from Condoleeza Rice. The hearing, in the room itself, felt electric and unprecedented. And the gripping reactions afterwards seemed to underscore that.

But in fact, the image of a White House advisor offering dramatic testimony about an administration is something we've seen before. Through the years, Congress has summoned dozens of remarkable figures to the witness table. The hearings in turn, have produced some sensational and incredible moments. Below are some of the most memorable.

  • The 1973 Watergate hearings are considered the Grand Daddy of the television era. There was the disclosure of a Nixon Taping system, and there was this warning from Nixon White House counsel John Dean on June 25, 1973: “I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed … the president himself would be killed by it."
  • In the 1970s, Watergate was front and center… but so was Vietnam. One congressional hearing featured a medal winner named John Kerry. On April 1972, Kerry was quoted as saying, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
  • 25 years before Watergate, some of the first televised hearings focused on the threat from communists. One particular hearing in 1948
  • The 1950s also saw Congress put on hearings about the Mafia. The testimony of mobster Lucky Luciano was immortalized years later in movies, including
  • In the summer of 1987, the hearings on the Reagan administration’s Iran Contra scandal pushed aside most broadcasts of TV soap operas.  Alongside Lieutenant Col. Oliver North, the colorful cast included a gorgeous secretary named Fawn Hall, and half a dozen Reagan aides.
  • 13 years ago, the nation was mesmerized by Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas and the sensational allegations from Anita Hill.
  • Exactly 10 years ago, Congress tried to get the truth about big tobacco. CEOs were put under oath and interrogated by Congressman Henry Waxman.
  • 6 years ago, the House launched the Clinton impeachment hearings. Judiciary Committee Counsel David Schippers, a Democrat, testified that the president had lied under oath. 

The widows of 9/11 have been clamoring for the truth, and they’ve provided some of the most gripping testimony in these hearings to date. Kristen Bretweiser, in her testimony on Sept. 18, 2002, said The families of the victims of September 11th have waited long enough. We need to have answers. We need to have accountability. We need to feel safe living and working in this great nation."

As for Rice’s testimony, this hearing today marked a Congressional first: With the advent of the Internet and encouragement from the 9/11 commission, MSNBC’s website collected 14,000 possible questions, and informed the commission of their publication on the MSNBC website. And so, these congressional hearings, which can be dramatic and confrontational, are now also interactive.

David Shuster reports for 'Hardball with Chris Matthews. 'Hardball' airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.