Senate fiddles in secret while public burns

Monday, January 25, 1999

A good part of the reason most of us remember that riveting and remarkable
1990 public television series “The Civil War” was producer Ken Burns’ use of
thousands of photographs to help retell the story of one of our nation’s
most wrenching crises.

Faded, torn and blurred as they were, those photographs nevertheless brought
into sharp focus what more than a century’s passing had made dim and

We are indeed fortunate we have those photographs by Mathew Brady and others
from a time when photography itself was new. The technology has come a long
way since then, but the still photographer’s ability to make an image of the
moment last more than a lifetime remains a signal characteristic.

Examples of how still photography informs and even changes history abound:
the Oklahoma City firefighter carrying a tiny victim from the bombed Murrah
Building; young John Kennedy saluting as the caisson carrying his father
rolled by; the young Chinese student standing up to a tank in Tiananmen
Square; Joe Rosenthal’s photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Iwo

Such images quicken the pulse of news and burn their way into our minds and
hearts. More importantly, they stand as hard evidence of what really
happened. They help protect history from being spun, manipulated or

Now contemplate the still photographs we are seeing as we live through yet
another national crisis, the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. The news
photos are from the fringes rather than the front lines. Still photographers
are forced to focus on rehearsed and scripted “photo ops” in the halls or to
shoot images from TV monitors while the real news happens behind doors that
are closed to them — but not to television cameras.

In the right hands and under the right circumstances, television cameras
also can capture the key moment, inspire and transfix. But in this case,
the two cameras anchored in place serve more as unquestioning transcribers
than as curious chroniclers. They present history as a moving target. They
record the event but not the eventful. They show everything that moves but
little that is moving. They never pause to allow us to absorb the reality
or the significance of what is happening.

The still photograph, on the other hand, allows us to be a comprehending
witness as well as an appreciative observer.

Before the Senate hearings ever began, a number of press organizations
pleaded with Senate leaders to allow access for still photographers, or at
least one pool photographer. But the senators refused to budge for

Today, the Senate has another opportunity to change its rules and allow the
public to have a firsthand view of history in the making — when it
takes up the matter of whether deliberations about the next steps in the
president’s trial will be closed or open. Again, it is likely to show more
deference to its comfort and convenience than to the public or history.

And this time, it won’t be just the still photographers who are barred.
There will be no reporters, no TV cameras, no independent observers to
record for history these important deliberations.

“The public isn’t going to believe in this political process if we go into
secret or closed session,” says Sen. Paul D. Wellstone of Minnesota, who
along with fellow Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa wants the sessions to be open.
“The public is not going to have trust in what we are doing if they don’t
get a chance to evaluate our debate and what we are saying and why we
reached the conclusions we reached.”

But to open up the process, Wellstone and Harkin must convince 65 other
colleagues for the two-thirds vote needed to change the rules. That’s not
likely to happen. Instead, the Senate will follow the rules that say that
not only will the final deliberations be closed to the public, so will any
discussion about other decisions in the proceedings, including whether to
end the trial, depose witnesses or call witnesses.

Even the debate about whether to open up the proceedings will be in

Elected leaders explain such secrecy by saying that they can be more candid
and compromising if their constituents don’t know what they are doing or
saying. This from people who stand in line to offer their views on the
ubiquitous talk shows. When it comes to the real job they were elected to
do, however, they want to go behind closed doors.

“Trust us to do the right thing,” they say, “even though we don’t trust you
to watch us doing it.”

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that sort of irony, or
contradiction, or hypocrisy — however one chooses to describe it —
is beyond even the power of a photograph to explain.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at