The Congress I am a huge fan of every documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has ever made, with perhaps one or two exceptions. His series on Baseball is the best way I know to understand the game, fan or no-fan. In fact, Baseball is one of the best ways I know to understand an important part of American social history. His award-winning eleven-part series on the Civil War is by far the best historical presentation of this era ever put on film. Every American should see it at least once in their lifetime. Other Ken Burns film series are good but these two long ones are his classics. His 90-minute documentary titled America: The Congress is too short but for what it does accomplish it does with incredible insight and real entertainment at the same time. One reviewer has referred to Congress as "the closest thing to a National Temple." Burns’ documentary is a history of that temple, the United States Congress, i.e. the building. But this film is also a history of the institution itself, made up of the 435-member House of Representatives and the 100-member Senate.

Most American history is told from the perspective of presidencies. This is a hugely flawed approach for several reasons. A major one is that the legislative branch of our government has a more varied and colorful story. Another is that Congress has power over the executive branch in ways that few Americans understand. The power to make laws, pass budgets, change our commitment for or against a war, all belong to Congress, not to the president. The Congress holds final power over the commander-and-chief of the United States. There is nothing like this in the world, at least among major powers in the world.

Burns’ America series, of which this film is one part, includes a number of similar documentaries, most of which I have seen. America: The Congress has to be at the top of the list for these shorter films. Beginning with the great orators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the representatives of the American people were an eccentric and extraordinary lot. From Henry Clay to LBJ they learned how to get things done, ostensibly for the people. Not always popular with the country Congress has recently sunk to new lows in favorability. We think we now have the worst lot of rogues ever assembled. Burns’ film will disabuse you of this nonsense. A point made, that amused me, was this—while the general public has spoken of Congress in general with disdain our specific states and districts elect incumbents with an average of 55-60% approval in most elections. The conclusion then is that most people feel better about their own representative than they do about Congress as a body.

ken-burns Burns (photo at right) follows his typical formula here of using interviews, actors' readings and wonderful old photographs. Narrated by the great David McCullough the film includes historic film footage from the early 20th century. Burns uses “insiders” for interviews, a style he has mastered in all his films, to great effect. His insiders include Alistair Cooke, David Broder and Cokie Roberts, to name the best-known. But some of the lesser-known historians are superb too. Barbara Fields, an African-America historian, is again used by Ken Burns and shines like a star. Covering 200 years in such a short space is frustrating at times. I truly wish Ken Burns had made an entire series on Congress. The problem with this format is simple—we are given only a minute or two with key characters, many of whom you've never heard of and thus will forget unless you watch the film again. This is why I intend to see this documentary several times personally. One of the humorous lines in the film was that Congress hears a joke and turns it into law and passes a law and turns it into a joke!

Watching Burns film reminded me again of the true genius of our government. For all its weaknesses there is nothing like it in human history. I marveled again at the wisdom of our founders and the way these people have done their business without chaos, except of course for our Civil War. Those who think Congress has never been worse than right now are clueless. They speak out of passion based on too much talk-radio and far too many urban myths spread on the Internet than from any real sense of our history. Congress has had better moments than right now but it has had far worse.

One lesson I gleaned from viewing this film was that the break-up of the two-party system in America is not in our best interest. Why? The more we elect various voices, representing various dissident groups and radical opinions, the more likely Congress will not be able to reach the necessary compromise it must to truly do the people’s business. The elections this fall are likely to change the landscape of Congress again, tilting power away from the president and his party. But the change will very likely not be nearly as large as some think. This is the way things generally work and this, in itself, is not bad. I became far more appreciative of the good of the two-party system and how it can work for our benefit by seeing this film. I also wonder about our future if we move to the extremes, right or left, and thus I hope moderate voices keep pulling us to the middle as much as possible. America works best when we move to the middle and learn how to compromise on legislation that does the best for all the people.

David McCullough says two issues have concerned Congress from the very beginning of our nation: civil rights and growth. In some ways these two issues still remain much the same over the years yet they have changed on a scale that is rather obviously large. (Civil rights includes more than racial rights if  "right to life" is a civil right, which I believe it is since the unborn, the weakest and most vulnerable in our midst, have a right to life and liberty.) Keep in mind, especially when you hear the gloom and doom of the extremes today, that we’ve been here before and likely will be here again. This, after all, is America and this is a major part of what makes government by the people and government for the people so brilliant and genuinely successful in the end.

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  1. Bennett Willis August 3, 2010 at 10:50 am

    I look at our (in many ways) non-compromising congress with the same feeling that I had once when I was looking at the price of a silver service in Mexico. The clerk asked me what price I would be willing to pay—but even if I got her down to the normal fraction of the price, it would still be more than I was willing to pay. We were so far apart that we were never going to find common ground. This seems to be the place we find ourselves.
    You can’t get anything done—even routine business. This is a major reason for the low approval rating. Presidential appointments can’t be approved so agencies run without official direction and without official spokespersons. Appointment approval should be straightforward but it is not.
    I credit this problem (for the House) largely to the way that districts are set up in most states. You are in “danger” in the primaries only from the extreme right or the left so there are many reasons not to go toward the middle of the political field at all. This danger makes sure that you never compromise in a way that could be politically used against you—and any compromise seems to be politically unacceptable to the extremes. This seems to explain the Senate.
    “If I were king,” I might try to set up congressional districts so that you would have little certainty regarding which party would be elected. Obviously, you can’t set them all up this way but they all should be as close as possible. Being elected by a huge majority seems to be an ego boost that few politicians can overcome. Let’s keep it close—and a bit uncertain!

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