Dramatic Changes in the Senate

updated 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Offhand it would seem one of the more improbable hits of the summer: gavel-to-gavel live-TV coverage of the U.S. Senate, including grandstanding, quorum calls and roll-call votes. As the cameras were rolling during the six-week trial, the Senators were captured in both fiery and mundane debate—on the controversial nomination of Daniel Manion to the U.S. Court of Appeals, giving tax breaks to Alaskan reindeer herders and commending the Boston Celtics for winning the NBA title. While the toil and sweat of daily life in the Senate chamber may not appeal to fans of high-glitz drama, it has proved popular with political addicts and the lawmakers themselves. Last month the Senate voted 78 to 21 to turn the experiment into a video staple.

The Senate production is a no-frills operation. The Senate's chief executive officer, Sergeant-at-Arms Ernest Garcia, is responsible for the day-today operation; his audiovisual staff of 13 oversees the control room and orchestrates the show according to Senate guidelines. Cameras focus on the presiding officer or the Senator who has been recognized, and are prohibited from scanning the chamber except during roll-call votes or quorum calls—thus heading off the danger of catching a nearly empty room or a nap-in-progress. There are no commentators, only identifications and explanatory notes scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

With the Senate staff performing the production work, the Washington-based C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network) has only to transmit the action to the 300-plus cable systems that subscribe to its service and carry it to 8 million homes. The network has been airing complete coverage of the House proceedings for seven years. It has now assigned a channel to each chamber: The House is on C-SPAN I, the Senate on C-SPAN II.

Senators were long afraid that TV coverage would transform the Senate into a vaudeville stage or a national soapbox. Indeed television's presence, they say, has had a galvanizing effect. Some Senators have huddled with media consultants, even asking advice on makeup, and many have emerged, clonelike, in red ties, dark blue suits and light blue shirts; balding members are lobbying for lower, more flattering camera angles. Speakers are enlivening deadwood body language and 'curbing windy adjurations. Speech reading has given way to more energetic delivery, and many Senators adopted desktop lecterns that allowed them to consult notes less conspicuously. Unbecoming ad hominem attacks seem to be on the decline too. "Senators are more inclined to restrain themselves from going to extremes in what they say acrimoniously," says Minority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). "Also they've really put more effort toward making more substantial and provocative speeches." Adds Strom Thurmond, South Carolina's courtly 83-year-old Republican, "People are going to be more careful about the positions they take because TV will show it right up."

As with any exercise in video vérité, the Senate show has been laced with absurdity as well as sublime drama. C-SPAN's audience has witnessed such scenes as one Senator, mouth wide open, picking his teeth with a pen, and another, during an impassioned oration, standing with a flesh-colored tag dangling from his zipper. And there was laughter (some of it grudging) on the day the coverage began, when John Glenn (D-Ohio) stood to make light of his camera-conscious confreres. Daubing his shining pate with a makeup brush, he peered into a mirror and announced, "Personally, I plan to do nothing different."

They also saw Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who is noted for his temper, shouting at Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) about the tax break for the reindeer herders (which made it into the tax-reform bill). In return Simpson called Stevens a "feisty cookie" and "a grizzly" and accused the lawmaker of shoveling "pork by the metric ton." One of the most moving moments occurred when Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), a major architect of the tax-overhaul bill, choked with emotion as he told the Senators who had passed the sweeping measure, "This country is in your debt."

Viewers have caught bloopers as well. When the camera turned on Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sitting in the presiding officer's chair and talking on the phone, he became so flustered that he smashed the receiver onto the desk, rather than the hook, and hid it with his hand—looking like Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live.

Even with warts-and-all coverage, certain players have emerged as stars. Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kans.), 63—who comes across as a more animated and attractive version of Hill Street Blues' Captain Furillo—is a favorite. However, the droll Dole quipped, "I'm not flooded with letters asking, 'Are you thinking of divorce?' or saying, 'Please accept $5 million for your 1988 campaign.' " Another standout is Joe Biden (D-Del.), 43, who, like Dole, is turning in the kind of performance that will raise his stock as a potential presidential candidate. An eloquent speaker, Biden managed to be both beguiling and intense while leading the blistering opposition to the Manion nomination. Young, handsome comers like John Kerry (D-Mass.), 42, and Albert Gore (D-Tenn.), 38, are predictably winning, and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), 54, is a charismatic standout in spite of his avoirdupois. As TV critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post said of Kennedy, "No one has looked this senatorial since Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." John Warner (R-Va.), 59, the ex-Mr. Elizabeth Taylor, and Robert Redford-clone Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), 39, could grab starring roles on Dynasty. Warner insists, however, "I rarely look in the mirror, except to shave."

TV has been decidedly unkind to others. Some viewers still remember the day when Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), 64, wearing a beige suit, lavender shirt and burgundy tie, stood before a bus-station-yellow background to deliver an indignant speech about drug runners in Mexico. When his face turned crimson, the aesthetic effect was well-nigh unbelievable. By all accounts the real disasters are Chic Hecht (R-Nev.), 57; John Melcher (D-Mont.), 61, and James Abdnor (R-S.Dak.), 63—"the three witches of Macbeth," as one media consultant calls them. Melcher, a droning if kindly Buddy Ebsen sort, was runner-up to Abdnor in the "worst orator" category in a USA Today poll of Senate press secretaries; he was named "biggest windbag" in Washingtonian magazine's best-and-worst issue. The maligned Melcher, dubbed Leather Lungs by some of his staff, has no plans to tone down the volume or tone up his style. "I see no need to change," he comments blandly, though he fears TV will "create havoc with the legislative process. Now it's all nicey-nicey speeches," he adds, "with all the Senators acting like long-lost brothers." Abdnor is "not very insightful," in the words of one media analyst, with a rambling speaking style marred by what his press secretary calls "a complicated speech defect caused partly by nasal drainage." And the rarely vocal Hecht—with his slick black hair and lizard cowboy boots—is a "dead loss," according to one reporter. Hecht, for his part, purports to be above such carping. "Chic Hecht," he says of himself, "is a workhorse, not a showhorse."

Even if the cameras can be cruel, Senators are given to applaud the electronic invader. Says Byrd, "It's making the Senate more efficient and effective, and it's good for the American people—it helps them see that the Senate is a great institution." Or, at least, an inoffensive companion: "I think," says Arkansas Democrat Dale Bumpers, 61, "that a lot of shut-ins and elderly people are going to get addicted."

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