Twenty-five years ago, Brian Lamb founded a cable television network and along the way became arguably the most well-read TV guy in the nation. Lamb, who founded the public-affairs...
Twenty-five years ago, Brian Lamb founded a cable television network and along the way became arguably the most well-read TV guy in the nation.
Lamb, who founded the public-affairs cable TV network C-SPAN (he remains its chief executive officer) began his career in the Navy, working in the Pentagon and at the White House. After time spent as a reporter and Senate press secretary, he founded C-SPAN in 1979.
For most folks that would have been a full plate, but Lamb also agreed to host “Booknotes,” a weekend C-SPAN program that each week featured Lamb’s interview with a nonfiction author.
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Last year, after 801 author interviews and 801 weeks of reading some pretty darn big books, Lamb ended “Booknotes.” He’s hosting a new Sunday evening interview program, “Q&A.” Meanwhile, a “Booknotes”-style program called “After Words” will feature guest interviewers (www.booktv.org).
Lamb is in town today to accept an award from the American Historical Association at its annual convention in Seattle, being held through Sunday at the Washington State Convention Center, the Sheraton Seattle and the Westin Seattle (www.historians.org).
Here Lamb chats about reading, history and the future of C-SPAN:
Do you know a good historian joke?
Only that they’re like economists — if you string them end to end, you never reach a conclusion.
What are you reading now that you don’t have to read a book a week for “Booknotes”?
I’m reading Michael Kauffman’s book on “American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies” [Random House], a book on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I find the story of assassination extremely interesting — this country has been so violent over so much of its history.
Lincoln’s assassination was a terror attack — it frightened people on the same scale people are frightened today. They [the assassination cell] were people with Southern sympathies. Secretary of State [William H.] Seward was stabbed five times. He was already ill. They didn’t kill him, but they disfigured and maimed him. The fellow who was going to kill Vice President [Andrew] Johnson gave up.
It was a conspiracy to kill the Union government. You can imagine if that happened right now — the fear would be as great as it was in the aftermath of 9/11.
It’s a great discipline to have to read a book every week, but at the moment I’m taking a respite from the week-to-week reading. I loved it, but I ran out of gas.
Give us a recommendation for a great work of history.
The book of history that’s had the most impact on me is a book by Catherine Drinker Bowen called “Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May-September 1787” [Back Bay Books]. This book was touted during the bicentennial of the Constitution by former [U.S. Supreme Court] Chief Justice Warren Berger. It was a narrative of the writing of the constitution that was so clear and so well-written. It has had a tremendous impact on me in all kinds of things, including “Booknotes.”
I started going to historical locations. … I found it so important to go to Independence Hall. Since then I’ve been to all the presidential libraries [except Clinton’s, which just opened], presidential homes, presidential grave sites. I’ve become a historical traveler.
What period of history intrigues you most?
I’m surprised how interested I am in the Gilded Age. Reading about all the personal wealth that was developed — the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, building the railroads. There was a lot of corruption among those in and around the process making money and abusing the system, just as there is today. Every time you pick up the paper, there’s somebody abusing their position.
What history have you lived through?
I worked as “social aide” to the White House in the Lyndon Johnson administration. You’re an extension of the First Family at social events. You’re a fly on the wall. I would be the announcer, guests would give me their name [in reception lines], and I’d announce who this was.
No one said, ‘You can’t talk about what you hear.’ It’s a lot less oppressive being around a president than you would think. When you are in the military, you keep your mouth shut.
C-SPAN is an amazing success story. What do you think it will be like in 25 years?
You almost have to know where technology is going to know where we’re going to be. We could be bigger than ever in terms of education and research to the public. Or we could be out of business.
I’m convinced that people will get the information they want when they want it. They’re not going to continue to go home and watch NBC throughout the evening, and I’m not sure how we pay for folks just watching what they want to watch. People will probably be metered, and you’ll pay for the time they watch.
More than anything [C-SPAN] has been part of an enormous revolution. The American people have an incredible appetite for information, entertainment and sports — whether it gets to the point that they say, “I can’t afford any more of that,” I just don’t know.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org