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.
"Personally, I plan to do nothing different," said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) late in the afternoon, as he pulled out a mirrored compact and checked his makeup. Glenn seemed to have been rushed in like a Broadway play doctor assigned to liven up the show. By then it had lulled down to dispirited debate on the Higher Education Act. Glenn popped up between quorum calls to consider the changes television is likely to wreak.
"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," Glenn said, leaning over like this into the camera, "because that will give a poor impression." He took out a makeup brush and dabbed at his forehead, which extends aft quite far, actually, and noted he had been cautioned to "cut that shine on the head" caused by bright TV lights. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) had noted, "It's nice and bright in here, just like it is in New Mexico."
Obviously, the Senate Show is going to resemble "Hill Street Blues" in one respect: It's an ensemble effort, but certain characters are going to be more popular than others and they'll be the ones people tune in to see.
Some senators chose to ignore the presence of the camera, so much as possible, but many were decked out in TV-favoring red ties, a few wore TV-blue shirts, and many spoke about the arrival of TV in the chamber. Glenn noted that advisers had been telling senators how to look into the camera, how to hold the intrusive microphones, and not to wear anything so mundane as "a plain old white shirt and summer tie," which Glenn was wearing. "Heaven forbid," he said, holding up a red tie considered more appropriate television attire.
This was Day 1 of STV, Senate Television, "going public," as Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the majority leader, had put it, after a few weeks of test broadcasts that could be seen only in Senate offices on the Hill. Yesterday's premiere was carried by C-Span, the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, on its main channel, normally reserved for House proceedings.
When Senate business resumes today, far fewer homes will have access to it, since the Senate will be consigned to C-Span's new second channel. A C-Span spokesman said yesterday that the second channel is now being received by 160 cable systems, with a potential audience of 7 million homes, as opposed to the 2,300 systems and 25 million homes that have access to the main channel.
So the Senate starts out as an also-ran. And also a Johnny-come-lately, since House television began for earnest in March 1979. The Senate might even be called a Johnny-come-kicking-and-screaming, since former majority leader, and likely 1988 presidential candidate, Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) began working for acceptance of it in 1981, with an assist from Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), who said in a C-Span interview before the opening gavel yesterday, "Television is now part of the warp and woof of American politics, and that realization could not be avoided any more."
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.
It was unusual in the annals of historical events in that it was both momentous and dull.
Just after 2 p.m., Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the presiding officer, banged the Senate into its first telesession with two whacks of the gavel and the words, "The Senate will come to order." It did. Thurmond muffed the name of the guest chaplain (the Rev. Bernard Hawley), and said he was the father of astronaut Sally Ride, when he is in fact the father-in-law, but otherwise, the day was fairly free of foul-ups, bleeps and blunders, nonlegislatively speaking anyway. Dole dropped his mike once, with a thunk thunk, and sometimes one senator would be speaking while the wrong senator was seen on camera, but there were no horrendous calamities.
However, one miscalculation was immediately evident. The camera angles are all wrong. Cameras look down on everybody, so that neither Glenn nor anybody else had to lean over very much to display the top of his head. In the case of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), this may have been advantageous, since his cranial landscape suggested some sort of ornate patriotic woodcut, a representation of amber waves of grain, perhaps, with the amber faded into shades of gray. Nobody's looked this senatorial since Claude Rains in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
No one else is seen to much advantage, though, with the cameras poking down on them from on high. The House chamber, with its raked floor, is better suited to TV. The Senate Recording Studio, which is handling the TV output of the Senate, can experiment with better camera placement in the weeks ahead.
The microphones, which sit to the side of each member's desk and are activated when picked up, will probably also be changed, since the current system leads to too much ambient mike noise and the occasional muttering not meant to be broadcast. Some members, like Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), chose to hold the mike; it made him look a little like a roller derby announcer. Most used the attached clip to hang it from their coat pockets. This could mean an entire Senate scarred by the pox of pocket sag -- or at least those members who do most of the talking on television.
In addition, there is almost never a wide shot of the entire chamber, so it is impossible to place senators in proximity to one another, except during the occasional two-shot (two senators) or three-shot (three senators). The senators seem to be in voids of their own. There's no chamberness to the chamber as it exists on television.
Senators who sit near the back wall of the room, like Kennedy and Wilson, don't get to fill up as much of the frame as those toward the front of the chamber, and they have to contend with pedestrian traffic behind them. It's the normal flow of Senate functionaries at work, but when these senators are speaking, the visual impression you get is that people are walking out.
Many of the members who rose to speak during special orders (five-minute speeches on any topic) yesterday -- and more participated than is usual -- took note of the arrival of television. Even Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who has been an opponent of TV in the Senate ("It's going to put more people to sleep than Sominex"), brought along a couple of visual aids for his remarks about arms control and Star Wars. "Here is one dollar, one dollar. That is what arms control will cost as opposed to $1,000 dollars for Star Wars," Proxmire said, holding the dollar up to the camera, more or less.
Others were more direct in welcoming TV. And some were silly. Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) offered a poem, "A Sonnet to Senate TV," which began, "Turn the spotlight over here/ Focus the camera on my place/ Pages, don't come too near/ Otherwise you might block my face." Heflin said he'd heard there was a secret nook off the Republican cloakroom where senators stashed makeup.
"I imagine that Capitol Hill-area sales of hair spray, styling mousses, Grecian Formula, Ultra Brite toothpaste and mascara have recently reached an all-time high," Heflin said, to no perceptible chuckles. He blew in like a lead balloon, even making a few jokes (giving legislation titles like "Let's Make a Deal") that professional comic Mark Russell had put over a lot better earlier in the day in an appearance on "The CBS Morning News."
Russell said he was not surprised it took the Senate so long to embrace television. "They just took out the spittoons not long ago," he observed. Russell's cracks were certainly the pithiest to be heard on the subject, at least on the CBS broadcast. He even composed a special tune, to the melody from the "M*A*S*H" theme song, "Suicide Is Painless": "Its impact, it is safely said, just as big as 'Mr. Ed.' "
On the C-Span pregame show, Dole said, "If we conduct ourselves as we should, television in the Senate should be a big, big plus." He also said he was sure the cameras would remain once the six-week trial, and a Senate reexamination, are over. "My view is, once you turn on the switch, it's going to be forever," Dole said. On the floor of the Senate two hours later, he said, "Today, in effect, we sort of catch up with the 20th century."
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), whose flowery rhetorical formalism one might have thought would seem too quaint on TV, actually came across quite well, with real dignity. He heralded the arrival of television by saying, "Today the U.S. Senate comes out of the communications Dark Ages," and he offered a history of the Senate's relationship with TV, back to the Kefauver hearings of the '50s. Accepting television, Byrd said, is "a step that is as irreversible as it is inexorable." Byrd did not wear a red tie. He wore a tie with two red stripes.
Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), Baker's successor, said television would bring "good and positive changes." He wore a dark blue tie. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said that although "we're not much in the way of entertainment, we have a few witty members, but on the whole we're not very funny," but nevertheless concluded, "This is the show to watch." He wore a red tie. Mathias, in a dark green tie (unless my Sony deceiveth me), said, "We have enlarged the galleries. We have pushed out the walls to include all the American people who want to watch."
Some commentators yesterday made allusions to the low ratings the Senate is bound to get, and how it will be no threat to "Dallas" or "Cosby," and so on. These remarks are more foolish than facetious. There is no conceivable way that televising the Senate, no matter how numerically small the viewing audience, cannot foster more interest and awareness of the legislative process in this country. The side benefit is that the prying eye of television may encourage the Senate to rediscover its lost luster as a forum of great debates and impassioned deliberations.
Naturally, with a presidential election on the horizon, Senate TV is going to be viewed by some as a protracted episode of "Star Search." No particular stars, except for Kennedy and Glenn and Dole, seemed evident in the first day's session. Those who can be expected to profit from the TV exposure in the future include Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Chris Dodd (R-Conn.), William Cohen (R-Maine), Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) and, ironically, perhaps even Russell Long (D-La.), who was the most adamant senator in fighting the introduction of television, but whose colorfulness and verbal dexterity may serve him very well on the omnipotent tube.
Immediate impact will be minor, once the initial fuss is over. C-Span President Brian Lamb said yesterday that the added signal is being offered free to cable systems, but that costs for new equipment to handle the channel will come to about $5,000 per system. He said all the cable systems in the Washington area have signed up for Senate TV via C-Span except for those in Reston and Woodbridge. George Mason University's microwave "Capitol Connection" service makes the signal available to government buildings (including the White House) and private parties in the District, which still has no cable TV.
During Hawley's invocation, he said to the senators present, "We are in the presence of the Eternal." He did not mean television. He meant God. But as the senators fell in line yesterday with their new TV demeanors, and gathered to welcome the addition to Senate procedure, it did seem that television was the prevailing deity. "I'm sure that none of us will do anything differently in the Senate of the United States now that we're on television," Glenn said. Everybody knew he was joking. It was probably the biggest joke of the day.