I don’t know about you, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, C-Span’s Booknotes program was required viewing for me on Sunday nights in those pre-World Wide Web, pre-browsing at Amazon.com, pre-Blogospheric days. This 1999 article by David Brooks* in the Weekly Standard helps to explain why, in the wake of Brian Lamb’s recent retirement announcement:
The quintessential C-SPAN moment came during a Booknotes program in 1991, while host Brian Lamb was interviewing Martin Gilbert, the author of a biography of Winston Churchill. Gilbert was talking about the interplay between private scandal and public life when the following exchange took place:
GILBERT: When Churchill was 20 and a young soldier, he was accused of buggery, and, you know, that’s, you know, a terrible accusation. Well, he ended up prime minister for just quite a long time.
LAMB: Why was he accused of buggery and what is it?
GILBERT: You don’t know what buggery is?
LAMB: Define it, please.
GILBERT: Oh dear. Well, I — I’m sorry. I thought the word we — buggery is what used to be called a — the — an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British papers. It’s — you don’t know what buggery is?
Over the twenty years that C-SPAN has been in existence, its founder Brian Lamb and his colleagues have pioneered a distinct interviewing style. The questions are flat, short, and direct. And they are centered around facts. The guests might be longwinded or erudite or both, but usually what sets them off is some six-word question about a specific fact. You get the impression that if Brian Lamb were called in to interview Jesus the first questions out of his mouth would be: “It’s said you fed the multitudes with loaves and fish. What kind of fish was that? How many people does it take to make up a multitude?”
It seems like such an easy thing to ask direct questions about simple facts. But when you zap up and down the TV dial, you notice that few of the other talk shows do it. The broadcast network interviewers ask mostly about emotions and feelings. On many of the cable talk shows, the host is the star so the questions are really rococo essays that render the answers superfluous. And when you cast your eye out to the broader culture, you see even more that curiosity about simple facts has been submerged amidst the more sophisticated interest in theory and perceptions.
Found via Orrin Judd, who actually described an even better “quintessential C-SPAN moment” — or at least quintessential Brian Lamb moment — back in 2000, when he reviewed then-Democrat presidential nominee Al Gore’s sci-fi classic, Earth in the Balance:
Has Al Gore, or any of his fellow travelers, even stopped to consider whether there has ever been a human society that was able to maintain a growing and vibrant economy during a period of declining population? I do not mean to suggest that population growth is necessary to economic growth, but I would like to hear some examples that demonstrate that it is not or even just some philosophical argument about why it is not. Or consider his call for government to dictate the development of new technologies–does anyone seriously think that some cadre of World Government bureaucrats would be competent to pick and choose what technologies are most likely to succeed, never mind the likelihood that such a system would simply be riddled with corruption. If the Twentieth Century proved anything it is that government is the enemy of human progress, perhaps even the enemy of mankind. But here is a prospective President of the United States who believes that government should be massively expanded and given an enormous range of powers over our lives. I find that pretty disturbing.
The most interesting aspect of all of this though remains the fact that baby boomer Gore apparently arrived at this radical totalitarian position as a result of his mid-life crisis. When you tell folks that your favorite TV program is Booknotes, you often receive somewhat disconcerted glances in return. But there is a certain naive genius to Brian Lamb’s interrogatory technique. Consider this exchange:
GORE: I went through a change in my life when my son was almost killed a couple of years ago. It was a shattering experience for my family. He has had a miraculous recovery and we’re very blessed and very grateful to all the doctors and the nurses who — who — who helped to make it possible. But during the long weeks when my wife and I were in the hospital room with him, I began to really look at life a little bit differently and ask questions about what’s most important in life and, having already long since been deeply involved in this issue, I began to look at it differently also.
Instead of seeing it just as an outgrowth of the new scientific and technological salt on the Earth and the population explosion which is adding one China’s worth of people every 10 years now, I began to feel that the deeper causes are within our own lives as individuals. What gives us the notion that we are just isolated one from another with no responsibility to the future our children are going to live, no connection to the communities in — in which we live out our lives. And I began to explore, in a very personal way, what it is that leads to these false assumptions and how we can get on with the task of solving thi — this crisis and organizing a response that gives our children and grandchildren and generations to come an Earth that is not diminished and degraded by virtue of what we’re doing in our short lifetimes.
LAMB: How is your son?
That is simply brilliant. This middle aged hack pol goes prattling on about how a sudden realization of human mortality forced him to reexamine his entire world view and deadpan Brian cuts to the quick to find out how the kid is. The answer, thankfully, is that the Gores’ son is fine, which only makes their extravagant reaction to the accident even more frightening. Suppose, God forbid, that Gore becomes President and something like this happens; you have to question whether a person who undergoes such a seachange in their personal philosophy at a moment of admitted stress but surely not of catastrophe is even fit to govern.
* Incidentally, whatever happened to that version of David Brooks? He seemed like a fine conservative writer before believing he could determine that a man was fit for the highest office in the land based on the cut of his trousers.