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Must C-Span TV

You ever hear about that thing called civic responsibility? Of course you haven't. You sit there in front of the television with your remote hanging out lamenting the end of Seinfeld or the hijinks of those beautiful coffee-swilling New Yorkers on Friends.

Chances are, you're visiting this Website only because there are only reruns on tonight and you need your TV fix.

There's one area that doesn't get much attention here at TeeVee, and that's C-Span -- the public programming channel that provides its own collection of amusing programs, including Congress and The Road to the White House.

The fact is, C-Span is one of only a handful of cultural oases in the desert that is popular culture.

I know, I know -- I can hear you groaning now. But the ugly truth is, C-Span can be pretty entertaining. Although I admit it lacks many of the features that make shows like Baywatch successful, at least until the cameras start rolling in the Oval Office intern pool.

But for the discerning viewer, C-Span has its gems just like other networks. Not every show on NBC is Must See TV. It's the same on C-Span. Some shows are good. Some aren't.

If polls are to be believed, Americans don't care about politics anymore. You'd rather watch the souvenir videotape of your barium enema than watch C-Span.

But that's because you don't know what to look for. You've been addled by the network news sound bites that have reduced serious debate to Madison Avenue cliches that only a slick-talking shallow shyster like Bill Clinton can love.

Politics can be entertaining. Really. C-Span offers moderator Brian Lamb, a stately white-haired gentleman who's so fair not even Solomon could figure out his political leanings.

Granted, the self-important journalists who appear on Lamb's show are exactly the jaded, humorless bow-tie wearing nerds that drive people away from political thought and into the warm bosom of Jennifer Aniston. The real entertainment comes in how Lamb fields the questions for those guests that pour in from die-hard C-Span viewers -- the witless looneys, the drifters, the revolutionaries, the unrepentant commies, the conspiracy mongers, the aging hippies, the militia men, and the entire readership of The Nation (all six of them).

For example, here's a typical call Lamb took while interviewing someone from Mother Jones.

Lamb: Hello, caller, you're on.

Caller: Am I on?

Lamb: Yes, caller. Do you have a question?

Caller: Yes. I have a question for your guest. I want to know why the media keeps covering up all the evidence that Chinese troops are exercising their forces on U.S. soil in Arizona. I mean, if the U.N. isn't behind this who is?

Lamb: Thank you caller. Mr. Guest, your response?

Guest: Well, I think what the caller is getting at is the Republican Party's efforts to slash funds for Medicare, Medicaid, the environment and education. I think the American people expect more from Congress and don't trust Newt Gingrich.

Lamb: Next caller.

Caller 2: I want to know why the media never talks about how just three corporations control all of the news. The people need to hear how GM is laying off thousands of workers. I was laid off 15 years ago and I haven't had a job since. I want to know where the recovery is. We've been exporting jobs to other countries. Why don't we force those companies to stay here by having the people take over the companies?

Lamb: Caller, did you have a question?

Caller: Yeah, that's my question. Why don't the people take over?

Guest: That's a great question. It's a story we don't get in the media enough. We need more focus on how the vanguard of the proletariat can bring about a worker's paradise if only they'd seize the means of production.

Lamb: Hot Springs, you're on the line. Do you have a question?

Caller #3: Why doesn't the media lay off the President? His private life is his own thing. If he had sex with an intern...well, he's human. Who wouldn't have sex with a 21 year old? As long he isn't blowing his job, what does in his private life is fine with me.

Guest: I agree. The media has been way too hard on Clinton. He's done so much for us.

C-Span also gives us a lot from other cultures. Questions for Parliament, does more for Anglo-American relations than anything since the Declaration of Independence. Most of us think of the British as stuffy, effete snobs who still have aristocratic blood coursing through veins. And most of us feel shame when we compare the fat, glabrous Dan Rostenkowskis of American politics to the svelte, trim members of Parliament.

Not true. Questions for parliament dispels the myth. British politicians are just as grasping, uncouth, and filthy as the American variety.

Here's a typical exchange.

Tory: How does the Prime Minister explain our study that he is a stinking git?

(Crowds on both sides in commotion, cheering and jeering)

PM: I would like to refer the distinguished member from Cesspool to my earlier answer.

Tory: What answer was that? We still have the git problem, PM. And it is growing.

PM: The earlier answer I gave -- you will recall -- involved the act of.... (PM backs from podium, raises hand and flips the opposition the bird)

Tory: You're all a bunch of wankers! (Salutes back)

But even within in the walls of Congress, some people actually can hold an audience -- and deliver this kind of action. There is one fellow in Congress who has the style and verve of old: Congressman James Traficant) of Ohio.

Traficant uses the English language as a battering ram. He preaches hell fire and brimstone. He's creative, relentless and, well, he's strange.

Take this little one-minute speech.

"Mr. Speaker, China violates American trade laws, China threatens to nuke their neighbors, China sells nuclear weapons to our enemies, China tries to influence American elections, and to boot, there is no political freedom in China. There is no religious freedom in China. Let us not forget China is still a Communist dictatorship.

"Mr. Speaker, if that is not enough to compromise your samurai, there is a group of Washington politicians who want to reward China with permanent, that is right, permanent most-favored-nation status. Beam me up.

"I say there should be some permanent brain surgery for these permanent politicians performed by some permanent proctologist; permanent this, China. Congress had better take a look at the next major national security threat that is a dragon about to eat our assets."

Traficant is different. He is exactly the type of person Washingtonians think can't get elected.

He's not the most handsome fellow. In fact, he's probably the best candidate for leader of the bad hair caucus.

But he can speak. He takes advantage of the one-minute speech. At the end of the day, after Congress has finished with debate, members are given one minute to speak on anything they want.

Traficant uses this time to rail against IRS abuses, foreign aid, and government corruption. The Democrat from Ohio is a torrent of words righting wrongs.

It is customary for members to end a one-minute special order with: "I yield back the balance of my time." But Traficant doesn't play by the rules. Often his closer is the best part of a speech.

On the Post Office: "I yield back the balance of all this chicanery."

On Clinton-Gore fundraising: "I yield back the balance of this Communist intrusion into our political process."

On Congress limiting the size of toilets: "I yield back whatever in Members' minds they believe needs to be yielded back."

On burning the flag: "If individuals want to make a political statement, they can burn their bras, burn their panty hose, burn their BVD's, but they should leave Old Glory alone."

On the economy: "I yield back all the propaganda on this great economy."

On foreign aid: "I say not one more dollar for these fat, cat Russkie nincompoops. Let us use our money to help the American military. Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of any jobs and money left."

Traficant began his elected career as sheriff of Mahoning County, Ohio. While there Traficant got mixed up with mobsters. He took bribes to ignore gambling, loan-sharking, drug trafficking and prostitution.

He was tried on criminal charges in 1983. Even though the prosecution had tapes, Traficant decided to represent himself. He won by arguing that the whole thing was his private attempt to work a sting on the mob.

It worked, and Traficant continues to win election after election.

No group incites his ire like the Internal Revenue Service -- although Traficant is fond of calling them the Internal Rectum Service. He hates IRS abuses and ferrets them out like Clinton rooting blondes at a political shindig.

Traficant is just a good American. After all, what's more red-white-and-blue than hating the French? "France once again says no to America," he said. "This time no money for NATO expansion. Unbelievable. President Chirac is an ingrate."

The poofy talking heads and frou-frou journalists say Americans don't want rough-and-tumble politics. They want an all-new Suddenly Susan, that's what they want.

I say the cocktail-tippers are wrong. Americans like politics like they like their steaks: Bloody. We're a meat-and-potatoes nation. We like Patton and boxing, football and wrestling. We like real guts and glory. And James Traficant has got it right. He doesn't hold back. He doesn't care what the Washington Post's Style section says. He is a representative of the people. He calls them as he sees them.

It's not just good politics. It's good TV.


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