At a time when 9 million Americans are unemployed and millions more are worried about making ends meet, it seems at first glance absurd, if not obscene, that the U.S. Senate has been engaged in serious debate about the desirability of televising its own proceedings.
The inclination is to think the debate proof that the senators really are a self-indulgent crew, out of touch with the real world. The House of Representatives has televised itself for three years. Many legislatures have done the same thing for much longer, with no damage to themselves.
The Senate is doing public business. Television is the prime means of communication in this society. So there is an obvious case for televising its sessions, as Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee is proposing.
It was with some surprise, then, that I found in reading the record of the debate that, along with some notably frivolous objections, there were serious demurrers coming from very thoughtful members of the Senate.
Some of the nay-saying was hard to take seriously. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), playing his favorite role as the charming curmudgeon, warned: "Only the Lord knows what will happen in this chamber when that red (camera) light goes on. I can see speeches going on all day, and we do not say too much as it is, and the longer we speak, the less we say."
If the cameras come in, he groused, senators will "have to have our hair fluffed. . . . Our wives (will) tell us what ties we should wear. Nothing makes me madder than my wife telling me what tie to wear. And whether to wear a white shirt or blue shirt. . . . You have to shine your shoes."
Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) said television would make senators behave like publicity-seekers, as if they weren't already. He said it would feed their presidential ambitions. Has he looked around him?
But along with these grumbles, there are some more serious points being made by such senators as John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) and Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who are asking how well television would serve the particular constitutional role of the Senate.
That role is to be a deliberative body, a bit removed from the currents of public opinion. That is why senators have long and staggered terms. And that is why Senate rules preserve a minority's, or even a single member's, right to delay decisions by lengthy debate.
Moynihan was not being frivolous when he asked if a body designed "to be deliberative, rather than representative" could comfortably coexist with what Danforth accurately called a medium that "does not simply report the news (but) creates the news . . . by drawing events to it."
Television, by its nature, shapes stories in a dramatic line--with a tight time frame to hold the viewers' interest. It is intolerant of delay, even when delay serves a useful purpose.
Senators could well consider the impact of television on the presidential nominating conventions. Long before the proliferation of primaries, television altered the character of the conventions by reshaping them for its own purposes. Favorite-son nominations, lengthy caucuses of uncommitted delegates, prolonged speech-making and many of the other devices used by organized factions to force a bargaining process with others in the party coalition were swept aside by the television demand for faster-paced action.
The Senate can consider that precedent, for it abounds with similar devices--slow quorum calls, leisurely colloquies, lengthy debates--designed to test popular notions over time and force a broader consensus before permitting final action.
The Senate is entitled to ask what the impact of television would be on its unique custom of filibusters. It may be that the filibustering minority on an issue would find television a marvelous tool for educating the public on the merits of its dissent.
But it may also be that television could be a weapon for imposing the tyranny of the current majority against that minority when, for example, a few senators are standing up against legislation to curtail the courts' discretion on school desegregation cases.
The presumption in favor of television access to all aspects of the public's business is a strong one. But the Senate has its own institutional and constitutional role to protect. It is not the House of Representatives, any more than the Supreme Court is the Florida legislature.
Even in a time of economic crisis, senators are right to insist that they should think carefully before bringing in the cameras. More is at stake than forcing Barry Goldwater to shine his shoes, change his shirts or fluff his hair.