C-SPANning the Right (for All the Wrong Reasons)

On November 8, 1994, I watched with mounting dread as the hardest-line slate of Republican candidates in my memory (and evidently in Barry Goldwater's, too: "Goddamned if I ever thought I'd find myself a moderate in the Republican party.") won in state after state and congressional district after congressional district. It was apparent early on that the GOP had taken the House of Representatives -- and that Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) would be crowned Speaker -- and not much later that the Senate would fall, too. It was a conservative blitzkrieg, the palace coup that Gingrich had plotted for over a decade.It's perverse, I know, but beginning that evening and continuing into the early months of 1995, I couldn't get enough of those charming guys and gals on TV: Gingrich, Barney Fag-baiter Dick Armey, (R-Texas: and what a perfectly cinematic name for a radically regressive poll), former Orkin man and Flat-Earther Tom "The Exterminator" DeLay (R-Texas), and the House of Representatives' freshman class of 74. Their hubris was -- and still is -- breathtaking. The weird pleasure I derived from watching the inmates overrun the asylum is difficult to explain, since if I had stopped to think about it I would have been terrified, but it seems to me to have something to do with the strange medium of television, the way it renders truly appalling events merely interesting. Otherwise, watching this stuff I would've become as stark raving buggy and paranoid as self-proclaimed congress-man and ber-patriot Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho). But at any rate, for one who really can't get enough, I soon discovered that C-SPAN is the only game in town. And, for what are no doubt all the wrong reasons (a flaw in my character that allows me to experience the hollow pleasures of watching jackasses bray, of listening to wet gray laundry flap on a line), I've been hooked ever since.I lifted that "wet gray laundry" metaphor from Mencken, who of course didn't live long enough to witness the advent of C-SPAN (which he would have vilified and maligned as hopelessly democratic, with a small "d"). But it perfectly describes much of C-SPAN's programming. And that is both the merit and the burden of "America's public affairs network," which really is hopelessly democratic. It will broadcast anything.Like chastened dragon lady and congresswoman Enid Waldholtz's (R-Utah) entire four hour press conference. Talk about your wet gray laundry flapping on the line. You may recall Waldholtz as the whimpering "victim" of 350-pound husband Joe's diabolic machinations. Joe stole money from Enid's daddy. Joe committed fraud in Enid's name during her campaign. Joe is a very bad and deceitful man. And by the end of those four hours, it was Joe Waldholtz who was being hung out to dry. But the point is that C-SPAN carried the entire four hours, live. Now, I don't know if that's laudatory or simply lunatic, but in any case, where else are you going to get that?But that is C-SPAN's raison d'etre: to broadcast everything of political moment, in its entirety, no matter what. The network sets an insane new standard for objectivity. But is that really what the American people want?We say it is. We are forever caterwauling about the liberal bias in the press. We say we want straight news, without "spin." Well, folks, it's here. And has been for about 15 years. But the fact is, nobody watches C-SPAN. I think that's because objectivity itself -- pursued as maniacally as it is by C-SPAN -- is subtly subversive. And the audience intuits it and interprets that as a kind of spin.Take the example of the Arizona Republican primary debate. I'm working from memory here, but I believe the good-time boys were all present and accounted for, with the single exception of Bob Dole (R-Kansas: a candidate who has grown increasingly imperious as his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust campaign slouches toward San Diego). In any event, the debate was being broadcast by both C-SPAN and CNN; and CNN, having commercial considerations, had to break away for advertisements. Not so C-SPAN, the unblinking eye. And what it broadcast during the "break" was this: After some of the shrillest and most vitriolic attacks of the entire campaign -- while the CNN cameras were rolling -- the candidates huddled together on the rostrum, backslapping and heehawing, as if they were actors backstage between acts of a performance of Macbeth. Which, I guess, they were, more or less.The irony, of course, is that callers to talk shows say they've grown cynical because of the so-called liberal bias of the press. But this unedited, un-predigested, uncommented-upon moment between men supposedly engaged in a "debate," which is necessarily adversarial, ought to do more to increase cynicism in the electorate than any partisan commentary or analysis. And without C-SPAN -- if we'd had to rely upon the commercial networks only -- we'd never have seen or suspected it.So, as we cruise toward November 5, 1996, I'll be tuned to C-SPAN watching and waiting. Waiting for Bill Clinton to pick his nose or fart before the Junior League of Shreveport, for Bob Dole to forget himself for a moment and actually try to sign something with that stupid pen he carries in his right hand. But most of all, for Ross Perot to rear his wiggy little head and declare we gotta raise the hood where the rubber meets the road. Or something like that.

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