Opinion: Politicians in the Raw, Courtesy of C-SPAN
It was a pretty big day back then; senators were preening (I lost count of the number of red ties) and at the same time worrying whether the essential character of the chamber would be lost.
About a quarter century later, the chamber's pretty much the same. The preening quotient's still high, and the business goes along at the same (frustratingly glacial) pace. But what's changed is that every word uttered is now recorded and cataloged. It's unfiltered, uncut and unrehearsed. Politicians in the raw, if you will.
For those of you who don't know, C-SPAN (the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network for the acronym challenged) is the Big Brother of the political world -- going along on campaign trips, committee hearings, floor sessions and the occasional black-tie congressional or presidential dinner.
C-SPAN was the brilliant idea of its founder Brian Lamb. An Indiana native (and Purdue alum) veteran radio, cable and PR guy, Lamb pitched the idea relentlessly in the 1970s to the cable companies. He viewed it as a public service. It took years, but the companies finally went for it, designing the network with the clunky name.
Then, he had to convince Congress that going on TV was a good idea. The House went first, in 1979, then the Senate, after Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the dean of that body and its unofficial historian, worried aloud that the House might get to be more respected by Americans if they could see it and not the Senate.
And now, all of those recordings -- about 160,000 hours of them -- are available, searchable and downloadable. (Unfortunately, not all C-SPAN coverage before 1986 is available online.)
That means you -- along with researchers, journalists, scholars and the just plain curious -- can search the C-SPAN archives for every speech, debate, committee hearing or boring markup session captured by the network since 1986.
The library -- www.c-span.org/videolibrary -- has cataloged C-SPAN programming for historical, educational, research and archival uses by individuals. It's all there, and it's not all a bore.
You can watch comedian Dana Carvey do his dead-on imitation of former President George H.W. Bush in 1992, at the White House and with Bush himself in the audience.
Or reprise former President Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman ..."
Then you can see former Rep. Henry Hyde's closing remarks in Clinton's impeachment trial, saying that the president did (and lied about it).
You can relive the speech that launched Barack Obama toward the presidency, at the 2004 Democratic Convention. That's there.
As is former President Ronald Reagan welcoming Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev to the White House in 1987.
And, just try not to click on this video -- where you can see the late singer/congressman Sonny Bono's take on serving in Congress. (Full disclosure, I'm in the same piece, though not in the Bono clip, which was filmed at a congressional dinner in 1995.)
If you just can't get enough about health care reform, you can relive Congress' debate on health care back in the 1990s and compare it to today's oratory.
Find that gaffe, locate that quip, re-live that soaring oratory. Link your favorite politician's speech to your Facebook page, if you want.
For the longest time prior to 1986, Senate offices couldn't see the House broadcasts. The prevailing notion at the time was that the Capitol was so divided between the chambers that no cables ran the length of the building. But I think they were just jealous.
No more. Now everything they ever said over the past quarter century can be seen again and again. For free.
It may not be "Saturday Night Live," but it's pretty valuable entertainment nonetheless.
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