Thespians and cameras go together. So of all the television shows, Congress--which celebrates its bicentennial this year--may be one of the best.
That’s Congress as a show, not shows about Congress. How curious that a legislative body yielding such good theater should so often be rendered moribund in documentaries, which tend to accentuate the arid and eliminate the absorbing.
A striking exception is “The Congress,” an absolutely captivating PBS program airing at 9 tonight on Channels 28, 15 and 24. More about that shortly.
First, for some context, we take our own detour down TV’s congressional memory lane. The milestones are self-evident--from the Kefauver crime hearings and the Army-McCarthy hearings of the ‘50s to the Watergate hearings of 1973 to this year’s war over President Bush’s nomination of former Sen. John Tower to be secretary of defense.
The camera focuses only on Kefauver witness Frank Costello’s hands after he asks that his face not be shown.
Red-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy smears and bullies witnesses, for which he is admonished by Army counsel Joseph Welch: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
The Senate Watergate Committee hears H. R. (Bob) Haldeman’s deputy, Alexander P. Butterfield, disclose the existence of tapes of President Nixon’s conversations inside the Oval Office.
Tower’s doomed nomination rises and falls in front of the camera amid allegations about his personal life and alleged conflict of interest, as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole accuses Democrats of partisanship and holding Tower to an unrealistic standard.
And the congressional show continues, with C-SPAN--which is celebrating its own 10th birthday--still providing daily telecasts of the House that present the governmental and political process close up.
It’s appropriate that, in its bicentennial year, Congress should dominate the news, from the Tower affair to the ugly spectacle said to be looming just ahead. That would be the predicted partisan bloodletting over an ethics report on House Speaker Jim Wright, with Republicans expected to bang away at Wright as a way of repaying the Democrats for the Tower defeat.
Is this what the Founding Fathers had in mind for the legislative branch?
What is Congress, what are its origins and how did it reach its present state? If you’re interested in a superb overview--or merely exhilarating TV--do yourself a big favor tonight and travel along on this most-wonderful PBS flashback, “The Congress.”
Its producer-director, Ken Burns, is a film maker whose documentaries (his other outstanding credits include “Brooklyn Bridge” and “The Statue of Liberty”) exude vibrant life and energy.
You see a title like “The Congress” and your eyes glaze over. Don’t be deceived, however, for there is not one dull or tedious frame in the entire 90 minutes. On the contrary, this is documentary as art--enriching and illuminating, a stunning program suitable for framing and one that can be watched again and again.
It has substance, color and humor. We hear the story of Congress and its members from journalists, historians and others. We hear voices present and past, the latter’s words spoken by such actors and literary figures as Derek Jacobi, Alistair Cooke, Julie Harris, Garrison Keillor, Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut and Paul Roebling.
We see the story in pictures, paintings, old newsreels and TV clips.
Burns uses his camera like a paint brush, surveying the interior of the Capitol dome and other handsome edifices in a loving, caressing, seductive way. He adds music, words and music to old photographs and paintings, and suddenly figures that were still and motionless come alive. It’s mesmerizing, but because Burns is as much historian as film maker, he uses technique only to enhance, not distort.
If only Congress were as good as this program.
Consider the pay-raise issue, where members of Congress cry about not being able to exist on their present pay, then beg to be returned to office. Although it would have fit, the issue is omitted from this program, which ends prematurely with Watergate.
“Self-interest is the engine of government,” James Madison said. Rarely has an engine been so skillfully and entertainingly taken apart and examined as in “The Congress.” By necessity because of time limits, there are gaps in the history, but the generalized review is cohesive and memorable.
Burns separates Congress and its members into categories. We meet the “builders,” then the “debaters.” “It was said no man was ever so great as Daniel Webster looked--or sounded,” declares narrator David McCullough.
We meet the “bosses” and the “progressives,” visit the Hill and the “managers” too. This is a realistic, yet optimistic view of Congress, a body historically flawed, yet human. Says historian James MacGregor Burns: “We enjoy bashing Congress because they are us.”
And “The Congress” is inspired storytelling and about as perfect as a documentary can be. If only such enlightenment were always the engine of television.