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Is There A Teachable Moment In The Mueller Report?

Chris Grafton via Unsplash.

Among the many roles that governments are tasked with executing are conducting studies on various topics and issuing reports and guidelines. As we have just seen with the recently released Mueller Report, this process can be rather controversial. Some government reports are much more dramatic than others, specifically when they are issued after the legislature conducts an investigation into potential wrongdoing. Additionally, these reports can be used to support a better understanding of how the legislative branch carries out its constitutional functions. As the House of Representatives' own website points out, the Constitution does not specifically discuss investigative powers, but the first congressional inquiries started as soon as the Revolutionary War was over!  

Younger teachers may remember the last big public report issued by the 9/11 Commission to explain how the government was unable to identify the threats that culminated in the September 11th, 2001 attacks. But a little further back—and even more controversial—was the Kenneth Starr Report, the other most recent Special Counsel. If we side step the obvious, students can be directed to compare and contrast the two Special Counsels, why they were called, and what sort of findings they came to. Secondary students might be prompted to discuss the possible political nature of these investigations and what it means for our democracy, including the House Select Committee on Benghazi and the ongoing inquiries into President Trump's finances. 

Whitewater and Watergate

There have been many reports issued, to be sure. And many more Americans get very confused trying to understand them. For instance, when they hear about the Whitewater investigations, confusion abounds because, unlike the Watergate investigations, they involved President Clinton and not President Nixon. As president Clinton’s actions led him to be impeached, U.S. history students will inevitably learn that famous piece of trivia that Clinton was one of only two presidents impeached. And Nixon was not the other one! President Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment because of the efforts of the Watergate Committee, whose report put immense pressure on the president. 

The New York Times' coverage in the days after the explosive revelations of Cinton's behavior details how teachers across the country were talking to their students and incorporating the events into their daily lessons. For a more targeted approach, the Bill of Rights Institute offers a primary source exploration and an analysis of news coverage of the president's impeachment at the time. 

When covering the complexity of Waterate, PBS Newshour has a great detailed lesson while Ohio State has put together exercises that should help understand the role of the media in shaping the public's views of these investigations.  

Iran-Contra

Yet the memories of Watergate and Vietnam had barely faded when another investigation was launched and Report issued. This time by the Tower Commission, tasked with investigating what happened during the Iran-Contra affair. Again the country was consumed with the narrative of “What did the president know and when did he know it?” 

To understand the breadth of American foreign policy at this point during the Cold War, the City University of New York Graduate Center has a simple breakdown. For something much more in-depth, Brown University offers and authoritative site covering everything from foreign policy, to the investigative hearings, to the enduring issues for American history. 

Mueller Report

And today's controversy is no different. Most of the commentators, on either side, equate the investigations of Robert Mueller to the Whitewater Scandal because of the appointment of a Special Counsel both times. They also talk about the connection to the Watergate inverstigations because of the allegations into the president's actions.

Time magazine has a plethora of resources to help make sense of who is being investigated, what a Special Counsel is, and what kinds of powers they have. To give students a chance at media literacy and an exploration of our divided body politic, have a look at the the lessons and content provided by PBS NewsHour

JFK Assassination

But possibly the most famous commission in American history is the Warren Commission. And even if that name doesn’t strike the youngest teachers, the findings of their report will surely be familiar. It was their judgement that President Kennedy had in fact be assassinated by a lone gunman—Lee Harvey Oswald. 

For middle school students, an excellent document-based question (DBQ) is available to investigate the controversial theories surrounding the President's assassination as well as the delibrations of the Warren Commission.  Also available is a dense inquiry lesson to let students explore the kinds of questions surrounding the president's death. 

9/11 Commission

For many teachers, trying to teach younger students about the events of September 11th can be, as one teacher said, "quite remarkable...[because] I'm still very sensitive to it." I, myself, was headed to my teacher education classes in college that day. But apart from covering the tragic history of 9/11, there is also the Commission Report issued in the wake of the attacks. Students would likely benefit from knowing some of the work Congress does in evaluating and analyzing national disasters, making recommendations for solutions, and planning potential implementation. 

The Pentagon Memorial Foundation provides a concise lesson for high school on how to understand the Report issued by the 9/11 Commission as well as the resulting congressional actions. 

So, if students want to better understand the work of the Special Counsel, now we have the resources to support their inquiry into the work of government commissions, especially America's most famous ones.