A quarter-century ago, the Senate was ready for its close-up

June 6, 2011

On a Monday afternoon in early June a quarter-century ago, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) — then a youthful-looking 83 — gaveled the Senate into session. After the opening prayer, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) took the floor and began to speak.

It was the start of a typical legislative day except for one key innovation — people outside the chamber could watch it.

Live televised coverage of the Senate, and thus C-SPAN2, were born on that day in 1986, seven years after cameras first came to the House. The video of that session — now available on C-SPAN’s Web site — shows that lawmakers were well aware of the occasion’s import.

“There’s no doubt about it, this day’s historic in many ways,” Dole said, later adding: “I think today we in effect sort of catch up with the 20th century. We’ve been the invisible half of the Congress the last seven years.”

Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) followed Dole and began his remarks, not surprisingly, by quoting a poet, Alfred Tennyson: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

Byrd, a legendary guardian of Senate history and traditions, played a key role in bringing cameras into the chamber.

Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) was the first lawmaker to propose, in 1981, that the chamber emulate the House by embracing television. Many in the Senate’s old guard were staunchly opposed, including Byrd. But he eventually warmed to the idea.

“He called me on the day that he changed his mind,” Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, said Monday.

The turning point, Lamb said, came when Byrd stayed in a hotel that had cable television — which Byrd did not have at home — and saw the House in action for the first time. He was impressed that the coverage was gavel-to-gavel.

“You guys are going to run the whole speech?” Byrd asked Lamb — a key point, given that Byrd was known for his epic addresses on the floor.

Byrd also told Lamb of an incident at a political event in West Virginia where the senator had been erroneously introduced as the speaker of the House. “That was a warning to me that we’d better go on television,” Byrd said, according to Lamb.

After the leaders spoke on that Monday in 1986, Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) was the first rank-and-file lawmaker to appear, just as he had been the first House member to speak when that chamber went on the air in 1979. (Gore was chided — unfairly, to some observers — for allegedly claiming to have “invented the Internet.” Lamb said he had heard of Gore telling others he “invented C-SPAN.”)

From a fashion perspective, the mid-’80s was certainly a different era than today’s. But the Senate is the Senate — mostly white guys in suits — so no one on that day looked like a character in a John Hughes movie or a Depeche Mode video.

The most visible differences between then and now involved hair, or lack thereof. Sen. Charles Grassley’s (R-Iowa) mane was nearly black. Dole’s was much more brown than gray. Gore’s thick locks grew over the top of his ears.

The main camera position — high in the chamber, pointing down — was not flattering to follically challenged lawmakers.

“Those of us with thinning hairlines, or with little hair on the head, have been advised that you do not lean over like this into the camera,” said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), demonstrating the improper position. At one point Glenn gestured for the cameras to zoom in as he applied makeup to his scalp.

Lamb said he knew of one senator, whom he would not name, who applied dark paint to cover a bald spot.

At the time, C-SPAN2 was only available in about 7 million homes. It’s not clear how high the ratings were on that first day, although it’s safe to say “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” did not feel threatened.

Reviews of the chamber’s debut performance were mixed.

Tom Shales, The Washington Post’s television critic, wrote the next day that the Senate began to “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.” A Los Angeles Times columnist said: “Monday came and went . . . and no bells, no tap dances, no Hula-Hoops, no hats, no circus. Not very much excitement, either.”

The Senate’s television experiment was dubbed a six-week trial, but Dole predicted on the first day that once cameras came to the Senate, they would be there to stay.

Another of Dole’s predictions didn’t turn out as well: “The Senate may change, not as an institution, but may become a more efficient body because of televised proceedings.”

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