By CHUCK RAASCH, Gannett National Writer
March 25. 2010 3:28PM
WASHINGTON — Historians will forever speculate over things like the sound of Lincoln's voice or whether Jefferson was as bad a speaker as some contemporaries said he was.
John Terhune, Journal & Courier Robert Browning, director of the C-SPAN Archives, shows some of the 80,000 analog files stored at C-SPAN offices in West Lafayette, Ind. Red labels indicate the files have been digitized.
Future scholars and average Americans won't have to speculate, thanks in part to C-SPAN, that cable mecca for political junkies and policy wonks. C-SPAN has just opened a free, searchable online video database of every program on the cable network since 1987, as well as other historic videos from the National Archives.
Scholarship has been democratized.
On one recent day, one of the most viewed videos was footage from Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China.
Have you read about — but never seen in its entirety — Bill Clinton's infamous speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention? Clinton droned on so long that the biggest applause line came when he said, "in conclusion."
You can stream it from this site.
You also can judge that speech against later addresses and campaign stump speeches — the library includes video from primary and general election campaigns — to watch how Clinton recovered from that potentially career-killing moment to win the presidency in 1992, declare the era of big government over, survive impeachment, and continue to be active after leaving the presidency.
The Clinton files are among the 160,000 hours of searchable and indexed videos. Judge Robert Bork's controversial 1987 Supreme Court hearings, where the term "getting Borked" originated, are here. (To Republicans, "getting Borked" means being unfairly rejected based on ideology, which they say happened when Democrats quashed Bork's court nomination).
The explosive hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas are searchable. You can see debate over two Iraq wars. You can hear Ronald Reagan's stirring 1986 speech after the space shuttle Challenger blew up.
The collection is housed in West Lafayette, Ind., where C-SPAN archivist Robert X. Browning and a team spent six years converting 120,000 hours of analog recordings made before C-SPAN switched to digital in 2002. New C-SPAN programming is archived within hours of it appearing on the network, which is now in its 32nd year.
Browning hopes that users treat the archives like an online library or free bookstore, where people browse and share and comment and debate. The video library has "share" buttons for e-mail and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
For Browning, who started the collection as a Purdue University political science professor, the value is self -evident.
"It really makes politicians accountable," he said. "Their words are there. They are recorded in their entirety. People can see the context and revisit it."
He said that until the database became public, it was often difficult to tell whether a member of the House or Senate appeared on the floor to deliver a speech, or whether it was inserted in the record as if the member were there. Some of the most active "speakers," he said, rarely appeared in person.
In the first days after it was announced, traffic to C-SPAN videos was up threefold, to about 90,000 daily views, Browning said.
For the writers and readers of politics and history, the impact of having this original historic video documentation cannot be overstated. One can get meaning from tone and inflection, facial expressions and audience reaction that words on paper alone cannot convey.
C-SPAN co-president Susan Swain said she hoped the archives would be a resource for both "the serious researcher as well as the casual observer — and those wishing to share political moments in their social online communities."
Nothing like getting Borked to get the social networks buzzing.
Chuck Raasch is national political writer for Gannett. His column, New Politics, appears here and on USA TODAY.com. A native of South Dakota and a graduate of South Dakota State University, Raasch has covered political campaigns since 1978, including Tom Daschle's first race for Congress and George McGovern's last race for the Senate. He has covered presidential campaigns since 1988.