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.

Mitt Romney was recently interviewed by Juan Williams, and both came off well. Williams had clearly read Romney’s book, asked fair questions, and let the author respond in detail without interruption. Romney’s voice, sometimes modulated like Ronald Reagan’s, is calm, reassuring, and confident. Is Romney now an ideologically reliable conservative, as Reagan became after outgrowing his liberal phase? Can he viably attack ObamaCare while defending RomneyCare? This interview won’t answer all our questions, but it’s a good place to begin judging the former governor and presidential candidate.

Peter Schweizer, author of Architects of Ruin, an important book about the underpinnings of the financial crisis of 2008, was interviewed by Rep. Michele Bachmann in November 2009. You’d think a sympathetic conservative would tee up the questions to help the author convey how the GSEs, the CRA, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd contributed to the crisis. Alas, Rep. Bachmann cut him off repeatedly. The tea party favorite may need to switch to decaffeinated.

McLuhan once said that television is an X-ray, an intimate revelation of character. If Rep. Bachmann failed to impress while interviewing Schweizer, Rep. Paul Ryan showed the right stuff in a Washington Journal conversation. Ryan is fast emerging as the smartest and one of the most telegenic leaders of conservatism’s next generation. His C-SPAN trail will be studied closely, like the mechanics of a top pitching prospect.

Two other interviews stand out because of the interviewer as much as the subject. In After Words with PJM's own Ronald Radosh, the late, great Jack Valenti tries and fails to challenge the author of Red Star Over Hollywood. The book is a stunning account of the Communist Party’s efforts in Hollywood. Valenti was, of course, a legendary figure in Hollywood and Washington, a former LBJ sidekick who became a brilliantly effective lobbyist as head of the MPAA. In this interview, however, the author has all the facts and the interviewer knows it. Just as a film hero is only as strong the opponent who tests him, Radosh is elevated by his triumph, like a scholarly Rocky Balboa upsetting Apollo Creed.

Mike Wallace interviewing Margaret Sanger (1957) is a more contentious battle. At issue is Sanger’s birth control “crusade.” Fixed on Sanger’s battles with the Catholic Church, Wallace misses the consequences of her advocacy. Whatever your conviction about the sexual politics of the last half-century, you may find this interview as evocative of our changed mores as a good episode of Mad Men.

Because C-SPAN can be a talking heads network, I wanted to know which of its programming would be recommended by an expert personally acquainted with dramatic technique. The next two recommendations come from writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Path to 9/ll; The Stoning of Soraya M.)

Cyrus calls the Hitchens-Galloway 2005 Iraq War debate “fantastic.” Galloway is way over the top and the audience is behind him, but Hitchens’ calm eloquence wins out. Nowrasteh also recommends In Depth with David Horowitz (2007), because “it was a pleasure to see the genius and scholarship of the man” compared with how he is demonized by the mainstream media. The story of Horowitz’ political conversion, spurred by a tragic murder, is indeed a gripping drama.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention another author interview about a compelling political conversion, Roger Simon on Blacklisting Myself. It’s an interview to see and a book to read because if it weren’t for the author, you’d be sitting there without your Pajamas.

You’ll want to unearth your own treasures in the C-SPAN archive, so here are a couple of navigation tips. The search engine provided works best if you can limit the date range. There is a clipping tool behind the share button, so you can put together your own highlights for emails and blogs. C-SPAN Video’s four inch image is useful for scanning, but use the four cornered icon in the lower right corner to expand the picture to full screen for longer viewing, then move back from your computer monitor. All but the most recent clips come from low def analog sources, and the digitization won’t yield a crisp image up close.

C-SPAN and its founder Brian Lamb deserve all the praise they receive for accomplishing so much with limited resources. Less often recognized are the multichannel operators who have been footing the bill since its inception, with limited political payback. You’d think years of congressional coverage would have earned more appreciation in Washington, but such is not the case.

Over the years, Washington micromanagement has road blocked cable industry progress repeatedly. Rate regs slowed the growth of broadband, cable’s enormous self-financed public works project. “Retransmission consent” rules force cable into painful negotiations for television signals which are supposed to be free to all. A peculiar set of limits on non-profits delivers the flailing left-wing channel LINK instead of more fair-minded fare like C-SPAN3. And now the FCC is hounding the industry for a universal fast broadband entitlement, as if the 2G/3G/4G generations of competing wireless services weren’t already moving faster than the meters on a Manhattan taxicab.

So thanks, cable industry, for the C-SPAN subsidy, and let’s also thank ourselves. Our nickels and dimes, forwarded each month from our cable bills to C-SPAN, paid for this impressive public library.