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Before Comey hearing, look back at past cause célèbres that seized nation’s attention

Former FBI Director James Comey.
Former FBI Director James Comey. AP

CNN, known for its portrayal of politics as sport, is calling it Washington’s Super Bowl. D.C. bars are opening early to host watch parties. Trump may live-tweet the event.

At 9 a.m. Central Time Thursday, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI Director James Comey will testify — the first time he’ll do so since Trump fired him. As the probe into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign intensifies, the nation will turn its eyes to the hearing.

The spectacle calls to mind other cause célèbres that have emerged in political arenas. The controversies are often evoked with just a single word: Benghazi, Watergate, Lewinsky.

Ahead of the Comey hearing, look back at those and other historical moments.

Lewinsky, Clinton and Starr

Impeachment proceedings against then-President Bill Clinton were initiated by Congress in late 1998. Kenneth Starr was the attorney in charge of investigating the president and Monica Lewinsky. Proceedings drew the attention of the nation, and as members of Congress were exposed for having affairs, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives then later acquitted. The intense partisanship changed the political landscape; it was the beginning of a sharp division of red and blue, Duquesne law professor Ken Gormley told NPR in 2010.

Anita Hill accuses Clarence Thomas

The 1991 Supreme Court hearings before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee for the confirmation of Clarence Thomas contained a major accusation: Thomas was guilty of sexual harassment. The allegations were raised by Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, who said she’d been sexually harassed by Thomas while working for him when he led the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Thomas was eventually confirmed, but Hill’s shocking testimony still looms, and the episode was recently rehashed in an HBO documentary.

The Watergate scandal

The potential for collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the hacking of U.S. elections has been compared to Watergate. The scandal led to the revelation that then-President Richard Nixon had attempted to cover up recordings in which he discussed thwarting a probe into a break-in of the Democratic National Convention headquarters in 1972. After a special prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes, Nixon fired him, but in the end he was forced to resign, becoming the first president to do so, for abusing the power of the presidency.

Benghazi probes

A 2012 attack in Benghazi left four Americans dead. The name of the Libyan city quickly became a rallying cry for conservatives, who, out of genuine outrage or political motivations, initiated multiple investigations into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her role in the deaths. The most memorable hearing may have come when Clinton was questioned by a House Select Committee in October 2015, in the midst of her sparring with Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for president. Clinton performed with aplomb — even brushing off her shoulder as though wiping away Republican needling — and it was later announced that the investigation yielded no evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton.

Army-McCarthy hearings

Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wis., notorious for relentlessly accusing others of fostering communist ideology, led a witch hunt as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations with many hearings directed at outing those on trial as communists. The hearings were among the first to be televised, and they captured the public’s attention. In 1954, McCarthy put the U.S. Army in his crosshairs, charging it with lax security. An appointed lawyer hired by the army, Joseph Welch, uttered an enduring response to McCarthy’s attack. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness,” Welch said. “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” McCarthy’s popularity plummeted afterward.

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg

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