C-SPAN's Archives a Treasure Trove of Wonkish Gems

The C-SPAN Video Library, including 160,000 hours of political events and congressional sessions chronicled by its networks since 1987, is now available free on the internet.

The collection offers telling moments in political communication; in-depth conversations with leading thinkers; worthwhile excursions into history, economics, and media; and some dramatic moments of conflict across the ideological battle lines.

On June 12, 1987, our “great communicator” President Reagan stood in Berlin and said “tear down this wall!” He triumphed in history and left a lesson to future statesmen, because cautious diplomats had tried repeatedly to remove the phrase. Reagan, who knew a thing or two about watered down material, insisted on keeping the line, and this time he had final cut. Reagan’s 1964 “Time for Choosing” speech, widely believed to have launched his political career, is also here, and much more.

Given the right moment and motivation, a mediocre communicator can also rise to greatness, as did President George W. Bush on Sept. 20, 2001. Likewise, heralded orators can sometimes cross the line into demagoguery, as FDR did in his 1933 inaugural address. I hope Bush’s speech will be replayed on next year’s tenth commemoration of 9/11, and remind us of how good he could be. Roosevelt’s speech is also pertinent today, something to show to Obama voters just now learning about the grave dangers of over-reaching.

C-SPAN’s JFK videos illustrate how a political leader must grow quickly. Shortly after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, the Kennedy presidency hit its nadir with a temporizing speech and an uncharacteristically evasive press conference. On October 22, 1962, he returned to the airwaves and forcefully announced a naval blockade to force Soviet missiles out of Cuba.

Not all fascinating political communicators are men. Sarah Palin might enjoy C-SPAN’s interview with an earlier conservative superstar, Margaret Thatcher, discussing The Downing Street Years in 1993.

Important thinkers are also stars in the C-SPAN firmament. Free from pressures of both advertising and fundraising, the network can assign sufficient time for the exploration of big ideas.

Charles Murray discussed The Bell Curve eight years after its 1994 publication, giving him a chance to respond to the misinterpretations of many who had only skimmed its pages. As if one big idea wasn’t enough, Murray returned to discuss all of them in Human Accomplishment. Another academic giant, Harvard Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield discourses for three hours on everything from Machiavelli to manliness, and has time left to touch on Tocqueville.

Great thinkers explore their influences as well as themselves. Milton Friedman discusses F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (October, 1994) and then a boom and a “tech wreck” later returns to offer his own macroeconomic perspective In Depth with Milton Friedman (Sept. 3, 2000).

The archive is strong on primary sources. Conservative thought is reviewed by William F. Buckley in a 2002 interview in his Connecticut home. The topic of neoconservatism is considered by Irving Kristol in 1995. In a rare 1961 interview, Objectivism is explained by Ayn Rand herself.

For over a decade, a political argument has raged over journalistic fairness. Two prime movers of the challenge to the media establishment are here: the man who put it into action, Roger Ailes of Fox News, and the reporter who conferred legitimacy on the debate, Bernard Goldberg, author of Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.

C-SPAN loves authors. Their inclusion adds humor and variety to the archive, none more so than Tom Wolfe. The self-made icon, our era’s leading novelist and observer of culture, discusses big ideas and small, from the legacy of Marshall McLuhan to lunch rituals, art, and real estate in Manhattan. Wolfe talks to civic groups, to colleges for three hours, and on In Depth with C-SPAN founder and host Brian Lamb.

Other notable author interviews include Temple Grandin, the subject of a recent HBO biopic; Andrew Ferguson (Land of Lincoln), a writer/orator in the Twain/Tom Wolfe tradition; the always brilliant and amusing Mark Steyn; dynamic libertarian Larry Elder; and the late, prophetic Michael Crichton, whose 2005 talk on fiction and global warming foreshadowed our understanding that the latter is the former.

Political interviews are important for C-SPAN, and for aspirants to higher office. The After Words series has tried both same-party and opposite-party interviewers, sometimes with surprising results.