The Magazine

Brian Lamb's America

How C-SPAN stepped into the breach and became our national historian.

Nov 8, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 08 • By DAVID BROOKS
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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.

In Edmund Morris's notorious biography Dutch, the facts of what Ronald Reagan did and knew are upstaged by the drama of the author's own quest to "understand" and "capture" his subject. And that is just the tip of the postmodern iceberg. Despite the efforts of E. D. Hirsch and other cheerleaders for fact-based "cultural literacy," school curricula no longer focus on the simple whats, wheres, and whens of history. University historians are even less interested in that stuff -- obsessed as they are with social forces and group consciousness. Even in a publicly funded showcase institution like the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the displays are concerned less with illuminating historical events or history-making individuals than with lionizing aggrieved groups.

Indeed, when you step back far enough you begin to appreciate that C-SPAN is so far out of tune with the times that it has become an intellectual counterculture. Especially on the weekends, the people who fill its screens seem quaintly and bravely out of step: the historian who has devoted her career to researching Pickett's Charge, the auctioneer who specializes in rare 18th-century books, the biographer who has spent years describing John Adams.

C-SPAN is factual in a world grown theoretical. It is slow in a world growing more hyper. It is word-oriented in an era that is visually sophisticated. With its open phone lines, it is genuinely populist in a culture that preaches populism more than it practices it. And occupying its unique niche -- C-SPAN is funded by the cable industry to cover Congress and public events -- it has managed to perform feats of civic education that are unmatched by better-funded institutions, such as the History Channel, PBS, the Smithsonian, or the multi-billion-dollar foundations.