In December 1995, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole delivered a forceful speech on the Senate floor in which he threw his weight behind President Clinton’s push to send U.S. troops to Bosnia.
Dole cited his work with Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) as the reason for backing the Democratic president, and recalled how he wore a POW bracelet with McCain’s name on it while the senator spent 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison.
For McCain, Dole’s speech was the most memorable moment ever captured by television cameras in the Senate. “I had never known that Bob Dole wore a bracelet with my name on it,” McCain recalled in an interview last week.
And that connection would have been lost forever without cameras in the Senate chamber. On Thursday, C-SPAN II is celebrating its 30th anniversary of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate floor, something that is taken for granted in today’s culture of 24-hour political news. But back then, allowing TV cameras onto the Senate floor was an encroachment on the august chamber’s tradition.
C-SPAN began airing House floor proceedings in 1979, but the Senate held out. Critics worried, in some cases legitimately, that senators would preach to the cameras and not actually debate, boosting their own image at the expense of legislative give-and-take.
Among the biggest skeptics of broadcasting Senate proceedings was a freshman senator who had won his 1984 election in part by mocking a Democratic incumbent for his low Senate visibility. “I remember thinking it would be a big mistake, and voting against it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told C-SPAN in a special interview celebrating the anniversary.
Though there is plenty of showboating by senators, the cameras have long been welcomed as a means for the public to get a glimpse at its elected leaders. And some doubters became believers.
“I was the one who made the mistake,” McConnell said.
Lawmakers think the benefits of shining sunlight on their proceedings outweigh the negatives. Even if just a few thousand people are tuned in at any given moment, senators see the cameras as an eye-opening experience for voters, opening up the great debates of the era, or even the not-so-great debates that end in gridlock.
“Some thought it was a wonderful place to grandstand, but there’s been nowhere near the amount of grandstanding as one would’ve thought,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving senator, said in an interview. First elected in 1974, Leahy spent almost 12 years in a Senate without TV footage and another 30 years with televised debate.
Senators initially struggled with the lighting, which was “really bright” at first because of some equipment issues, Leahy said. There was at least one senator with a “terrible toupee” who didn’t like having his hair exposed to the public, but Leahy stopped himself before identifying the follicle-challenged colleague.
“I think today we in effect sort of catch up with the 20th century,” Dole said on the morning of June 2, 1986, in the first televised speech from the Senate floor. Dole said that he hoped television would make the Senate “more efficient” because senators would be able to see debate from their own offices and information would move more quickly.
While that efficiency is debatable, the public has seen great moments that otherwise would have only been printed in the text of the Congressional Record. Barely a year into the Senate’s broadcasting history, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) set the tone of debate over the Supreme Court nomination of conservative jurist Robert Bork. That forceful “Robert Bork’s America” speech in July 1987 is still a key piece of the story about how Democrats defeated Bork.
Both McCain and Leahy cited the 1999 Senate impeachment trial of Clinton as a moment the public needed to see. The crucial charge ended in a 50-50 deadlock, well short of the two-thirds majority required to convict the president. But the Senate handled the case seriously and those that comported themselves well gained in stature.
“That was one of things that catapulted Lindsey Graham into the national picture,” McCain recalled of his close friend.
Back then Graham was a mere representative serving on on the House Judiciary Committee. But as an “impeachment manager” Graham presented to the Senate portions of the case dealing with alleged obstruction of justice, including an overnight phone call by Clinton to Monica Lewinsky.
“You’ve got a man trying to hide his crimes,” Graham said, shuffling his papers to find portions of the Lewinsky affidavit. “Where I come from, you call somebody at 2:30 in the morning, you’re up to no good.”
Both sides of the aisle broke into laughter. Four years later, Graham took the oath of office as a senator and is now an elder statesman in his party.
There has been grandstanding for the cameras, for certain.
Last year, three Senate freshmen running for president — Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — drew the ire of Senate elders who accused them of using the floor for political benefit, including Cruz’s labeling of McConnell as a liar based on a trade deal.
“This is a high and holy calling, it is not something to take for granted,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the longest-serving Republican, said in a speech rebuffing the trio. Hatch pleaded for restraint from turning the floor into “a forum for advancing personal ambition.”
Leahy said that grandstanding doesn’t get senators very far, because it alienates large portions of voters. He mimicked how voters react to over-the-top speeches: “Do you really talk like that?”
Besides, as mass communications advanced, the showboating moved off the Senate floor. The sugar rush of instant gratification and slightly bolstered name recognition now comes from appearances on the ideologically driven cable shows — or from late-night “tweetstorms” on social media.
Instead, the Senate floor has served as venue for serious debate more often than not. Leahy, a passionate amateur photographer, has called for opening up the galleries above the floor to allow still photographers to gain some access to a chamber that is now almost entirely off-limits for them.
In the inaugural C-SPAN speech, Dole lamented what history had lost throughout the first three decades of the TV era, in which battles over civil rights and the Vietnam War were never broadcast from the Senate floor.
“No longer will the great debates in this chamber be lost forever,” Dole said, noting his own wish to have been able to see great 19th century debates on the Civil War. ” Now future generations can have the opportunity to watch history in the making.”