Americans are growing more cynical about politicians because they feel manipulated by them, Brian Lamb, chief executive officer of C-SPAN, tells Newsmax.
“There is a cynicism about all politicians that is as great as it has ever been,” Lamb says in his book-lined office on North Capitol Street in Washington. “I think behind that is the way people in public life manipulate their image.”
Standing before a historic statehouse or having a famous actor at their shoulder as they give a speech are visual clues that help build a politician’s image, Lamb says.
“A congressman will put a bill in the hopper with no intent of getting it passed, because it will play well in the district,” Lamb says. “It’s not easy to figure out what is going on in this town,” he says. “A lot is going on behind the scenes. An elected official wants to be able to say he or she just delivered $25 million for this project.
"There is not the transparency we should have. Whether it be archival material of past presidents that is not released, or contributions to campaigns where you find out what they were months later, or it takes six months to find out how much congressmen spent on overseas trips.”
Politicians have become adept at the non-answer.
“I’ve interviewed every president since Lyndon Johnson,” Lamb says. “It’s a bit of a game. You always learn something, but not the things you want to learn.”
At the same time, political commentators focus mainly on the horse race, and television creates an artificial environment with makeup and meaningless sound bites.
“I have not closely watched a lot of the presidential debates because I don’t care about the nuances,” Lamb says. “I care about who their Cabinet officers will be, what their structure in the White House will be, who their secretary of Defense and who their aides will be. We don’t get much of that in debates. Who bests somebody in a debate is not so important to me.”
If Lamb sounds like the people who call in every weekday morning to C-SPAN (the network takes 25,000 viewer calls a year), it’s no accident. When he founded C-SPAN in 1977, Lamb thought it was a way to help democracy work by giving the public a window on Washington.
“I just didn’t like the fact that there were only three networks and that the news at night was the same on all three,” Lamb says. “In fact, that is still true. But I instinctively thought that if we could afford some change, we could have more information and open up the process to make government more honest. That’s what we have today. I’m just a pebble in the pond, but if you add up all the outlets, that is the outcome of what I thought should happen.”
Claiming foresight is unusual for Lamb, who is modest to a fault.
“I’m not that smart,” he will say. Or, “I don’t pretend I have the answers. That’s why I’m here asking the questions.”
On the C-SPAN Web site, Lamb is described as having “helped” found the network. He never misses a chance to reel off the names of others at the network who were there from the start.
Ronald Reagan had a plaque on his desk saying roughly, “No telling how much you can get accomplished if you don’t care who gets the credit,” Lamb recalls. “I’ve used that. I just find that to be incredibly important.”
A Penchant for Poignant Questions
In fact, it was Lamb who went to cable operators and proposed the idea of C-SPAN. The idea grew naturally out of his interest in broadcasting and penchant for asking questions.
“Growing up, I wasn’t a great student,” Lamb says. “I always asked questions because that was the way I learned. You just ask people questions directly. That’s how I got into the business. At age 13, I went into a radio station in Lafayette, Ind. and said, ‘Can I come in?’ I began asking questions of the disc jockey.”
In high school, Lamb’s broadcasting teacher Bill Fraser knew about radio and took an interest in Lamb.
“We had a broadcasting club; we built a little station in the high school with bailing wire and chewing gum,” Lamb says. “He taught me the basics of how radio works.”
At the age of 17, Lamb got a job at the station, WASK. Henry Rosenthal, the owner, let him interview celebrities like Nat King Cole, Leslie Uggams, Johnny Mathis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.
“I mean, it was unbelievable,” Lamb says.
After graduating from Purdue, Lamb joined the Navy, where his tour included White House and Pentagon duty. He worked as a freelance reporter for UPI audio in Washington and was a Senate press secretary before becoming Washington bureau chief of Cablevision magazine. While in that job, he came up with the idea for C-SPAN. A group of cable operators gave him 30 minutes to propose the idea.
Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, as it is officially called, went on the air in March 1979.
It had four employees and one telephone line. Because it shared a satellite with the Madison Square Garden Network, Congress was occasionally bumped by professional wrestling.
The not-for-profit organization now has three TV channels and WCSP, a local FM radio station that runs nationally on satellite radio. The network has an annual budget of $55 million and 280 employees. The money comes from an assessment on cable and satellite operators of five cents per customer.
Some 93 million households get C-SPAN, and an estimated 28 million people watch it every week. C-SPAN provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of congressional sessions, hearings, and speeches, as well as coverage of White House briefings, book talks, and interviews with authors, historians, and journalists.
C-SPAN has no makeup artists. Its seven hosts are anonymous, and each has a day job at the network as an executive. Susan Swain, for example, is co-chief operating officer of C-SPAN.
When I interviewed Lamb, he came out to greet me in the reception area and took me to the kitchen, where he brewed coffee for us. As other employees came in, he chatted with them about what is going on in their lives. As we walked to his office, he told me about the dental work one of the women we had just met was undergoing.
Despite being a very public figure, Lamb, 66, has always kept his personal life private. Back in 2005, Lloyd Grove of the Daily News in New York scooped the world by reporting that the confirmed bachelor had just married for the first time. Grove was able to learn Lamb’s wife’s first name but nothing more.
“They were married in a small, private ceremony in the Washington area,” a C-SPAN spokeswoman told Grove, “and Brian was in the office all week.”
Surely, Grove groused in his gossip column, that’s the kind of response that would prompt the “deceptively soft-spoken Lamb — in one of his trademark interviews with a politician — to demand answer after answer.”
Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post’s Reliable Source had even less luck than Grove.
“We wanted to share the happy news, but Lamb, 63, declined to return our calls or give minor details such as . . . oh, the name of his bride,” she wrote after Grove’s column appeared.
In fact, Lamb tells me, he has never taken a honeymoon. His idea of fun seems to be visiting presidential grave sites and presidential libraries; he has been to all of them. But when Washingtonian Magazine gave its Washingtonians of the Year award to Lamb this year at a luncheon at the Willard Hotel, I sat with Lamb and his wife, the former Victoria Martin, along with four C-SPAN executives.
An interior designer, Vicki Lamb confided that she had known Lamb since she was in the first grade and he was in the fifth grade at a Catholic parochial school in Lafayette. In the early 1970s, they learned from their families that they were both living in Washington.
“We dated for a short time, then it ended,” she said, looking a little sad.
I asked if he ended the relationship.
“No,” she said, without elaborating.
“We still discuss why it didn’t work then,” Lamb tells me. “She got married; I stayed single. Then after her marriage was over, I called her after not seeing her for 27 years and said, ‘Let’s have lunch.’”
Lamb is fuzzy about where the lunch was. He says it could have been at his house, and she might have brought the food.
That was in 1998. In September 2005, they married.
Their house in Arlington, Va., is filled with nearly 3,000 books, including many of the 801 books Lamb read to prepare for Booknotes interviews with their authors. After conducting the Booknotes author series for 16 years, Lamb ended it in 2004 because it was taking too much time. On C-SPAN's "Q&A," which runs on Sunday nights at 8, Lamb still interviews authors and others like Fox News Channel’s CEO Roger Ailes.
Roast Beef and the FBI
For Booknotes interviews, Lamb would spend up to 20 hours a week reading each book and doing research, and you could tell from the questions.
“Ronald Kessler, what do roast beef and the FBI have to do with one another?” was the first question Lamb asked when he interviewed me in 1993 about my book “The FBI: Inside the World’s Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency.”
On the one hand, the question was specific enough to elicit an anecdote that made a broader point about the FBI. On the other hand, the question was broad enough so that it allowed me to answer with a story from the book rather than waste time confirming or refuting his take on it.
The answer to Lamb’s question was that, according to bureau legend, a New York FBI agent went to lunch at a deli around the corner from where the field office was located. The agent thought the deli was an establishment that offered a discount or more food to FBI agents and police officers. He ordered a roast beef sandwich, but the deli did not give him a discount or extra meat. Showing the deli man his credentials, the agent said, “FBI! More roast beef.”
Now when they are dissatisfied with anything, FBI agents say, “More roast beef!” When they tell their bosses they showed their credentials, they say, “I roast beefed him.”
That’s a story I would never have had the time to tell within the typical five-minute commercial TV segment.
“You get the impression,” David Brooks once wrote, “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?’”
“My high school teacher taught me to ask open questions, where the individual will have a chance to give a substantive answer and not say yes or no or agree or disagree with my premise,” Lamb says. “It kills me if I slip and say, ‘You agree with this premise, don’t you?’”
That kind of impartiality is a thing of the past. In the world of sound bites and 24-hour cable news, reporters now think their job is to badger public officials in front of the cameras rather than to elicit information.
As Lamb sees it, the media have always had a slant. He says the Federal Communication Commission’s previous Fairness Doctrine created the impression that fairness could be achieved, but that was a myth.
“Most people who go into journalism are more liberal than conservative,” Lamb says. On the other hand, because of today’s plethora of information, “there is a lot more conservative thought available. When I came here, it was 70 percent liberal. Now you hear every side.”
Besides the standard newspapers, Lamb listens to radio commentators and reads a wide variety of Web sites from both left and right, including Newsmax.
When he talks about books he has read and authors he has interviewed, Lamb becomes animated.
“I really like the historians,” he says. “Richard Norton Smith, Robert Caro, Doug Brinkley, David McCullough, and Harold Holzer. They are resourceful; they do primary source work; they are engaging; and they know something.”
While Lamb generally reads biographies and histories, his favorite book is “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which Publishers Weekly described as a “brilliant evocation of New York’s class, racial, and political structure in the 1980s.”
“I remember being so excited about it that I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning to read it when it came out,” he says. “I thought Tom Wolfe nailed it way before anybody else did.” Referring to the stock market’s recent plunge, he says, “We are living bonfire of the vanities every day.”
The Nonpartisan View
For those who are used to seeing Lamb’s impassive face as he tosses out questions to presidents, members of Congress, and authors, it may seem startling that he actually has opinions. As one might expect, he is not a registered Democrat or Republican and has voted for candidates from both parties for president. He will not say whom he favors for the presidency, but he does say what most concerns him when evaluating candidates.
“‘I’ve grown to be interested in the money and where they want to spend it,” he says. “I’m not looking for someone to say he or she is for or against universal health care or improving Social Security, because regardless of what the American people may want, you have find the money to pay for it. That seems to be something the American people don’t pay much attention to. We are 9 trillion dollars in debt. I think this town has been very irresponsible on spending our money, on both sides of the fence.”
Does that make him a conservative?
“I’ve never felt any label fits me,” Lamb says.
After an interview of more than an hour, Lamb has a meeting outside the building. We walk out together. There is no limo waiting. Lamb takes the subway in Washington. Mixing with the public is perfectly in keeping with his visionary New England town-hall approach to television.
“C-SPAN is not what you’d call exciting TV,” President Bush said to laughter in November when bestowing the Medal of Freedom on Lamb in the White House, “though some of the call-in shows do have their moments. It is, however, a tool that enlivens democracy and informs and educates citizens of all ages at all hours.”
“I wanted to change television,” Lamb says. “I was just a loner. I didn’t have money or a pedigree. I started with nothing. But I thought it would be very healthy for people in this country to finally wake up and decide things for themselves.”
As for his marriage, “It’s been terrific,” Lamb says. “You wait 63 years, it ought to be good.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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