Happy anniversary

March 19, 2004

Rufus Wainwright is a 30-year-old pop musician and recording artist who spends his breaks from touring closeted in his tiny Manhattan apartment playing piano in the buff. Yet he fits the definition of a class of people widely regarded as pathetically in need of a life: He's a regular viewer of C-SPAN.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first time that peculiar band of the lonely, the bored, the insomniac, the curious and the politically obsessed were able to tune in live to the almost-never-spellbinding drama of the House of Representatives.

Their legions have grown from the handful of subscribers reached by two small cable systems in Maryland and Virginia to an estimated 25 million to 30 million in households across the nation. And the programming menu has expanded to include the similarly scintillating Senate, committee meetings for both chambers, and viewer call-in programs sandwiched around the legislative schedule -- much of it also available on radio or the Internet.

The politicians blathering away over C-SPAN channels are often just background noise even for the faithful, acknowledges Brian Lamb, founder of the cable-industry-financed public affairs network.

And yet his notion of providing a window into the arcane world of Congress -- offered without editing or political spin -- has transformed the legislative process.

Only about 12 percent of Americans are paying close attention, but the lawmakers feel their presence. They talk to the cameras instead of their colleagues; they try to make their case in real time rather than for history.

Sure, it's often bombastic grandstanding; deals are still done in back rooms. But the faithful Spanner gets enough unvarnished information to figure out what's going on.

Perhaps Mr. Lamb's greatest achievement is that despite the ever sharper political divide that cleaves this nation, C-SPAN maintains its reputation for neutrality. Callers, whether to the Republican, Democrat or independent line, almost always begin with, "Thank you for C-SPAN."

We second that.

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