It was 30 years ago today that C-SPAN opened up the Senate for public consumption, providing, as it describes it, “gavel-to-gavel coverage” on C-SPAN2, the new channel it had set up specifically to cover every Senate yea and nay.
That’s 33,120 hours-worth of live Senate debates.
OG C-SPAN had been around since 1979, when the House of Representatives agreed to legislate under the spotlight. The Senate acceeded to cameras seven years later, albeit with some vocal detractors.
One of those was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was a Senator back of the dawn of C-SPAN2, who says in a tribute video, “I remember thinking it would be a big mistake, and voting against it, but I have to confess it was, I was the one who made the mistake. I think it’s been extremely important to have the Senate televised and to have C-SPAN do that. And I’m sure I’ve made a number of mistakes in my political career, but voting against having C-SPAN televise the Senate was one of them.”
For the occasion, C-SPAN has created a highlight reel that spans the past three decades, but equally illuminating is the print coverage at the time.
“Television, which comes to everything eventually, came to the United States Senate yesterday, as the Senate began a six-week grapple with this strange, new, one-eyed monster in its midst. In Round 1, the monster won, but the grappler can be expected to hang in there,” begins a piece from Tom Shales in The Washington Post dated June 3, 1986. The six-week reference is to the fact that the initial launch was on a trial basis, after which the Senate approved continuing with the cameras.
Like any piece of first-draft history, you naturally compare what was to what is. The thing that seems most different is how television is described, especially in its intersection with Senate proceedings. But replace “television” with “social media,” and we could maybe be having this conversation today.
Of course television in the Senate is a victory for our electronic democracy, no doubt about it. But it was just a trifle sad yesterday to see the Senate, like nearly every other public or private institution in the land, now dancing obligingly to television’s tune. Senators, for all their previous camera experience, seemed uncertain and ill at ease.
But C-SPAN in the popular imagination appears to have maintained the same rep.
It was unusual in the annals of historical events in that it was both momentous and dull.
C-SPAN2 is marking the occassion tonight with an 8 p.m. ET special featuring McConnell, along with historian emeritus Don Ritchie and former parliamentarian Alan Frumin.