Still, no one was sure if anyone was really paying attention until the mid-'80s, when an obscure Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich began stepping regularly before House cameras to deliver diatribes against the Democrats. The House chamber was often empty at the time, but Gingrich wasn't speaking to his colleagues. He was speaking to the viewers of C-SPAN, and when he began to gain a measure of fame, everyone else in Washington at last awakened to the presence of the big mushroom at their feet.
Perhaps C-SPAN viewers weren't numerous, but they were keeping up with the issues, and they were voting--about 90% of them, according to surveys--and today C-SPAN is available to 78 million households on 6,500 cable systems, broadcasting around the clock on three channels.
About 275 staffers fill its Capitol Hill offices, working with an annual budget of $40 million. Cable companies still foot the bill, at a rate of pennies per subscriber, and C-SPAN now finds itself quietly at the vanguard of a cable news revolution, continuously feeding a small but significant portion of the public with an insatiable appetite for information.
"My main goal in life was to open the process up so everybody could be heard in one way or another," Lamb says. "And that's happened."
Lamb has a C-SPAN sort of life--subdued and uncluttered. He is a bachelor living alone in an Arlington townhouse, an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type who watches little television.
"Here, everybody's going somewhere. They're ambitious, they're trying to control their image. And you can't have, very often, a genuine friendship with anybody in public life. You can't trust it.
"I've never received a call from a public official that I thought was anything but official. You can't ever let your guard down and think that this is a friendship, and it shouldn't be anyway."
If Lamb is proudest of any one thing, it is that C-SPAN offers a voice for the voiceless. Even callers who seem one step removed from the asylum generally can have their say before Lamb and other hosts answer with a neutral, "OK, thanks."
In watching Lamb as he calmly shepherds callers, you will be hard-pressed to detect his own political leanings. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joked while appearing on a Lamb phone-in show last July that he too had been unable to solve the mystery of the man's party affiliation.
"Actually," McCain quipped to a caller, "I think he's a vegetarian."
Lamb moved on to the next item without saying a word.