"America is grateful to Brian Lamb,” said President Bush a couple of years ago, when he awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the founder and CEO of C-SPAN. The network Lamb founded more than 30 years ago may be the greatest boon to American self-government since the Fifteenth Amendment. But Lamb has other great gifts, notably as an interviewer who with a single, simple, apparently artless question can bring down a guest’s most meticulously constructed edifice of baloney.
He did it again on December 30, when he addressed a letter to congressional leaders noting that they had “all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the health care system.” He therefore asked—politely, always politely—that they open the final negotiations of the bill to broadcast. One question, and the walls of baloney came tumbling down.
When Lamb’s letter became public a week later, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid responded with a lightning strike into irrelevance: “What should truly concern the American people is the Republicans’ shamelessly transparent strategy to stop reform at all costs by relying on misinformation and myths. Their ploys are broadcast on C-SPAN for all of America to see.” (As the callers always say, Thanks for C-SPAN!)
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’s bumbling attempts at evasion played like a tape loop on YouTube, as did a brilliantly produced compilation of clips showing the repeated pledges of Senator Obama that President Obama would insist all “these [health care] negotiations [be broadcast] on C-SPAN so that the American people can see what the choices are.”
Asked about the president’s campaign promise and Lamb’s letter, Speaker Nancy Pelosi weirdly said, “There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail.” Then she moved effortlessly from regal disdain to vainglorious prevarication: “There has never been a more open process for any legislation.”
For their part, Republicans recoiled with disgust at the thought that politicians could be so insincere. But it was hard to miss the uncanny resemblance between the Democratic stratagems in health care reform and those employed by Republicans when they were in the majority, though usually in pursuit of much more trivial prizes—those thousands of earmarks slipped into unrelated bills over the last 15 years, just for starters.
But House Minority Leader John Boehner was undeterred. Citing the Democrats’ “troubling track record of jamming through massive bills that have not been properly scrutinized,” Boehner brandished his “congressional transparency initiative” as the antidote to all these sinister manipulations.
Two things were instantly clear about Boehner’s initiative. First, its reforms would indeed require the Democratic leadership to open their negotiations to the public. And second, its reforms would be fastidiously ignored when Republicans regain control of Congress.
Best of all among the many reactions to Lamb’s simple request was the scrambling of Obama lickspittles in the hackocracy. Some of these independent-minded champions of transparency and open government—E.J. Dionne, Joe Klein, Jonathan Alter—fell gracefully silent. Others justified the closed reconciliation proceedings of their Democratic masters with a disingenuousness that can only be called transparent.
“At first glance,” said a contributor to the Democratic blog Think Progress, “Lamb’s request sounds reasonable, even righteous.” But—the buttboys are known for their big buts—“But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009, filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.”
His point was echoed by many other apologists, but none exposed the logic of the Democratic position with such insouciant clarity. This is what Reid’s flack was driving at, and Pelosi too. All those “Republican ploys” were “broadcast on C-SPAN for all to see”—and the transparency didn’t work! Instead the public fell for the ploys and turned against health care reform and its Democratic sponsors. The hearings, the briefings, the speeches—all that patient explaining. . . . Nothing but wasted breath. So the hell with transparency. It’s time for Plan B.
What a spectacle—a three-ring circus of political cant—all set loose for our enjoyment in response to a simple, seemingly innocent request. My, what big questions you ask, Mr. Lamb! Has there ever been a more elegant bomb-thrower than the founder of C-SPAN, a more relentless mutineer, a populist at once so quiet, so sane, and so subversive? No wonder America is grateful.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.