Interview Date: Thursday April 20, 2000
Interview Location: Washington, DC
Interviewer: Paul Maxwell
Collection: Hauser Collection
MAXWELL: Hello. I’m here with Senator Timothy Wirth. This oral video history is made possible by The Hauser Foundation Oral Video History Project of The Cable Center’s Oral History Program. Tim, I want to start back when we first met back in the campaign in ’72, I think it was.
MAXWELL: ’74, sorry, and I want to talk about how you first got involved with the cable television industry. This is going to be a very cable-centric conversation, of course. So, it was up in Boulder, I think. Do you remember that?
WIRTH: Well, I’d say my first engagement in all of this came when I had just gotten elected in 1974 and a friend of mine whose name was Douglas Kater, who worked for Lyndon Johnson, had told me that what I ought to do is get on the Communications Sub-Committee in the House of Representatives and I had joined the Commerce Committee. I didn’t know what the Communications Sub-Committee was, but there was nobody else joining it. Torbin McDonald was the Chair and they had one other member, Lionel Van Deerlin from California and there was nobody else on the Communications Sub-Committee, so this looked like an interesting thing, there wasn’t anybody around. I thought the issues of communications, when I joined the Sub-Committee, were first amendment issues. I thought that’s what we were talking about, so I hired a guy named Robert Sachs, who’s now the head of NCTA, who had worked on the Daniel Ellsberg papers as a civil liberties guy and a first amendment guy. I hired Robert Sachs to come and help me with these communication issues that were all going to be first amendment issues. Well, we got on the committee and within about five minutes we figured out very quickly that this was not a set of 1st Amendment issues, but this was a set of issues related to carving up the pie, that that Sub-Committee had jurisdiction over how frequencies were effectively, not allocated, that was done by the FCC, but was the framework of law under which the FCC did it. It was the Sub-Committee that oversaw what the FCC did in terms of administering the Communications Act of 1934 in defining the public interest convenience and necessity. You know, what was the public interest standard, who was defining the public interest standard, that was being done by the FCC, but it was the Sub-Committee that really oversaw what was going on. Having figured that out, I then met a lot of people like you. I went to the CU center; they had some communications people there. There was a guy, a famous guy, at DU who was very involved in communications, who was one of the gurus of the country and I went to AT&T, to Bell Labs, to try to figure out what was going on, had a tutorial there and of course the system was the solution, was the thing that they were saying. You know, that’s have a monopoly.
MAXWELL: Very much, back then.
WIRTH: Le me see, I met… I guess that was the crew. The networks wouldn’t meet with me because they didn’t want to deal with members of Congress, particularly young members of Congress. I couldn’t get a meeting with any of them to discuss what was going on. So I started to learn about it and after about six months of looking at all this, and I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with the district that I represented, a guy named Bill Daniels walked into the office. I had met Bill Daniels in the campaign in 1974 because Bill Daniels was running for governor on the Republican ticket.
MAXWELL: You beat Brotsman, wasn’t it?
WIRTH: I beat Brotsman for the Congress and he was running on the Republican ticket. John Love had been the governor and there was an empty seat and the governor’s slot was empty and there were two or three Republicans in our primary.
MAXWELL: Yes, Vanderhoff and …
WIRTH: Johnny Van and Bill Daniels and there might have been somebody else.
MAXWELL: I forget the other one.
WIRTH: But Bill Daniels and I were the two absolute underdogs and so we used to meet at events. I can remember going in the parade in Evergreen with Bill Daniels. He was the only person that was nice to me and I was the only person that was nice to him because Vanderhoff had it locked up on the Republican side and Brotsman had it locked up for the Congress. So Daniels and I had gotten to know each other during the campaign and we’d really liked each other. We were totally different politically, but Bill was a wonderful guy, he was a really good guy and we both had absolutely no chance of winning. Nobody thought either of us was going to win. I ended up winning, he didn’t win the primary, I ended up locking up the primary and winning the general election in that big Watergate year. But I’d gotten to know Bill and we just liked each other. I didn’t know what he did, I just knew he was a Republican running for governor. I didn’t know this cable television stuff from diddley. So Bill came in and said he’d like to show me what cable television did and how it worked and what the promise of it was, so I went out to a place in west Denver and you might have come to that meeting.
MAXWELL: I think I was there.
WIRTH: We went to a meeting in some facility out there with Glenn Jones. Glenn was there and Glenn had that system and had that magazine, I’ve forgotten the name of the magazine, but Glenn was very Republican too, but Glenn was really interesting. He liked politics. He’d run for Congress, I think, before.
MAXWELL: Right, he had run once.
WIRTH: And he had kind of a twinkle in his eye for politics and so somebody who was a politician interested in cable was pretty neat from Glenn’s point of view and I was looking to learn about the business and also looking for Republicans who I might be able to encourage to join support for a fledgling candidacy. This was right after the election of ’74. Bill Thompson, Billy Thompson, who was the defensive back for the Broncos was a spokesman for cable television.
MAXWELL: Right, he worked for Bill.
WIRTH: He worked for Bill Daniels and they did an exhibition. You were there and Daniels and Glenn Jones and Billy Thompson and me looked at the first beginning of what could be done with satellites and how you could broadcast and why cable was important for Colorado and the Western Slope.
MAXWELL: Monty Rifkin and Carl Williams were around then.
WIRTH: That’s right, Monty Rifkin was involved. And how important this was for the district that I represented, which was Jefferson County, which was in the shadow of a mountain and wasn’t getting a lot of the signal. So it was important to have cable in those areas.
MAXWELL: That was the argument then.
WIRTH: That was the argument being made. So that sounded pretty reasonable and they were all Republican areas of the district that I represented were all in the shadow and I wanted to get to them so it seemed to be something that I ought to learn some more about. Well, I got to know Monty then and Monty was really helpful. He ran a couple of roundtables for me and I met a lot of people in the industry.
MAXWELL: He and Bob Tisch were doing …
WIRTH: Well, Tisch wasn’t around, I don’t think Tisch was yet on the scene.
MAXWELL: No, you’re right. It was late ’75 that we started Cablevision.
WIRTH: He came a little bit later than all of that and really was sort of the eager guy on the scene but the publication was really Glenn Jones’s deal at that point.
MAXWELL: It was the Searles, Stan Searle and Bob Searle had the publication at that time.
WIRTH: Was it?
MAXWELL: Yes, and that’s where Bob and I both worked before we broke off and started Cablevision together.
WIRTH: Is that right? I knew all of that was relationship. So I started to learn about the industry, then a couple of other things happened. The industry was having a terrible time with AT&T.
MAXWELL: Terrible time!
WIRTH: And AT&T was, that was the issue of how does the industry get its wires strung.
MAXWELL: It was the pole attachment problems.
WIRTH: Pole attachment, right.
MAXWELL: Which has, by the way, just popped up on the screen again.
WIRTH: I wouldn’t be surprised. I remember then coming into the commerce committee was a big guy from New York, who was the leader of the pole attachment issue for the cable industry, a lawyer from New York – Korb, Kobb, something like that.
MAXWELL: He ran TelePrompTer at the time – Karp!
MAXWELL: Burt Karp.
WIRTH: No, not Burt.
MAXWELL: No, Burt’s later.
WIRTH: That was C-A-R-P, this guy was K-A-R-P.
MAXWELL: K-A-R-P, right.
WIRTH: He came in and was unbelievably pushy about what ought to get done and was about as subtle as a Mack truck and had no idea but just came in and started telling everybody this is what you ought to do, and that’s what you ought to do. Who’s this guy? So I called Daniels and I said, “What’s going on? Who is this guy? He comes in here like he owns the place.” And there were some real – Dingle and John Moss – there were some pretty heavy hitters in the operation and this guy is coming in. So Daniels said, “I’ll call him.” So Karp comes up to my office just a totally different guy. He comes up and says he’s got the signal from Daniels, right? So we talked about what the problem was on pole attachments. So anyway, we decided at that point we’d draft a piece of legislation and did so and that was the pole attachment bill and that was the first…
MAXWELL: Remember, Bell Systems wanted the 214, is what it was called, where they had the leaseback and they had raised the pole rates in order to push more of that.
WIRTH: I think it was more than that. I think it was classic part of the industry. The industry, the communications industry, to summarize it from my point of view, is all about the haves keeping the have nots out. Those who are inside the industry want to keep the new voices out. The industry’s full of that. If you look at – the telephone people wanted to keep Bill McGowan and the long distance people out.
MAXWELL: And John Carter and ….
WIRTH: And the AM radio people wanted to keep the FM radio people out and the VHF television people wanted to keep the UHF television people out and the networks wanted to keep the cable people out and it was all a matter of carving up the pie. Those who were inside try to control the Congress and control the FCC and control who gets what and that’s what this was all about. I think that’s what the pole attachment thing was all about, was the attempt by the telephone companies, linked up with their brethren who were in the network business, to say we want to keep these new upstarts in the cable business out and they had a whole system of regulation, if you remember, at the FCC related to cable and they had a whole system of public interest standard definition for competition in the telephone industry and they were combining the two on pole attachments to prohibit the public interest being broadly defined so that the stringing of cable could be done on telephone poles, which had been done by a grant of public right of way to the telephone company. So I think that’s the basic issue and they would justify it on one ground or another, but it was really the ins keeping the outs out. So I had every interest for trying to do it. My district was in the shadow. I had some interesting guys like Bill Daniels, who were around, helping, Monty Rifkin, who were interested in saying this is the direction we ought to go and this is an industry that’s a Denver based industry. So I had that interest and I lashed up with a bunch of other young guys in the Congress and we were all sort of against the big guys and for competition and so on, so it all fit together and pole attachments became the metaphor for all of that and that was the first piece of legislation that all of this group got together to support and it was the first piece of legislation I got passed.
MAXWELL: It was your first?
WIRTH: It was the first and it sort of established me as somebody who was able to work through all the problems with all these interest groups and it allowed me, suddenly, to become a player and somebody to be reckoned with who was not just going to say, “Yeah, we’ll do this”, but actually took a lot of work to go out and try to cobble all of these pieces together and then ultimately to beat AT&T, which is what essentially we had to do. So anyway, while that was going on, AT&T was beginning to smell the sounds of competition coming from Bill McGowan, who then had this little microwave communications. MCI was Microwave Communications. If I remember, from St. Louis to Chicago.
WIRTH: And he wanted to open up this communications. He had borrowed some money from Kuhn Lowe, which was one of the old New York investment banking houses and the guy that had been his loan officer at Kuhn Lowe was a cousin of my wife’s, interestingly enough, a guy named Dick Bingham. Dick Bingham was the loan officer at Kuhn Lowe and he said, “There’s this interesting new industry and you ought to meet this guy, McGowan, he’s an interesting guy, and see what he has to say.” So I had lunch, at some point, with McGowan and McGowan tells me about – McGowan obviously wanted to meet me, I didn’t realize what he was doing, because I was a member of the Sub-Committee, right? So I had lunch with McGowan and he tells me about the problems that he’s having with AT&T not allowing him to interconnect into the system and it sounded to me just like pole attachments. It was the same deal. It was the same kind of philosophy of keeping the new guys out. While that was going on, AT&T was then beginning to introduce the “system as the solution” bill, to have the Congress legislate the AT&T monopoly. So they were moving down the road and going out and getting co-sponsors of that legislation. I didn’t think that that sounded, having had this experience with pole attachments and having McGowan telling me what he had to say, obviously everybody has their own interests to push. So I got together with a guy named Dick Ottinger, who was a Congressman from New York, from Westchester County. Dick was very involved with energy issues but was also very involved with competition issues and was trying to figure out how to bring competition to the energy world and I introduced a thing called the pro-competition resolution, which was a resolution that said we shouldn’t have monopoly governing the telecommunications system, we should have competition governing the telecommunications system. Well, that was a pretty radical idea, but it was the counter to the AT&T legislation and we had, in the first day, twenty two co-sponsors, which was twenty two people willing to say to AT&T, well we’re not so sure that you, AT&T, are right. Well, nobody had ever taken on AT&T in a systematic way before. It had never been done.
MAXWELL: Not at all.
WIRTH: Never been done. Anyway, so that was the shot across the bow. So at that point then, I became really the player for all the people, became the rallying point for all of the people who were interested in competition in the system. So it sort of carved out the cable guys and that was Denver and that was the pole attachment bill and the long distance people, and McGowan was the lead guy, there were two or three others doing it.
MAXWELL: Right, two or three others coming along.
WIRTH: Sprint had some engagement.
MAXWELL: They were United Telephone Subsidiary then.
WIRTH: Yes, and there were some little “Mom and Pop” cable companies and some little “Mom and Pop” long distance and telephone companies.
MAXWELL: Do you remember John Carter from Texas with the Carter Fund Decision? You won in court, because he had that little two way radio that connected to the phone and AT&T tried to keep him from even connecting to the phone.
WIRTH: Yes, it was him and then the group that really pushed that more than anybody else was ROLM.
MAXWELL: Right, ROLM pushed it. That’s right.
WIRTH: ROLM made telephones in San Jose. They were one of the first Silicon Valley companies.
MAXWELL: The first interconnect, they called them interconnect back then.
WIRTH: Interconnect companies, yes. Ken Oshman from ROLM came in to see me. R-O-L-M. I’ve forgotten the names – they were the names of the four founders of the company – were R, O, L and M.
MAXWELL: And he was the O.
WIRTH: I remember Ken Oshman, and he came in to see me about what they were trying to do. He lives in Vail now, I think.
MAXWELL: Yes, he does.
WIRTH: Is that right? Anyway, he came in to see me and we started building a constituency among people who were on the outside. Well, as this was going on the politics started to get pretty interesting because if I’m in there as the pro-competition guy, that means I’m not the pro-monopoly guy and AT&T starts to flex their political muscles.
MAXWELL: And take you seriously.
WIRTH: And to sort of say, well maybe we ought to be ringing this guy’s bell. So they started to get the communication workers organized and Jim Buoy was the head political guy for the communication workers, just a wonderful guy, and Buoy’s looking out for the interests of his workers and AT&T’s telling him we’re going to threaten all these jobs. But Buoy also has a populist streak in him and understands this is not right what AT&T is doing and there’s always this kind of tension between the workers and the management anyway. So we forged an uneasy alliance, contrary to what AT&T wanted to do. They wanted to get the communication workers to come out and go after me and they’d forged an alliance to go after me and eliminate me from public office but we preempted that through Buoy and forged kind of an uneasy alliance with competition and you could bring other people in that expand the job base rather than limit the job base and that’s what we ought to be after is growing jobs rather than restricting the number of jobs they’re in. So we worked on that and then, this then as we worked through the ’70’s became kind of pitched battle on all this. The sides began to draw and people began to understand that communications technology was changing and people began to understand that this is becoming a different world. I can’t remember what was going on at the FCC at the time, but I’m sure they were roiling at the FCC about a lot of these new issues coming up.
MAXWELL: It was turmoil.
WIRTH: And so we had some very interesting campaigns in that time that were getting pretty nasty and the nets were after me.
MAXWELL: I remember that.
WIRTH: And so was AT&T and I was winning by just bare blisters and the sides began to draw. The cable industry was supporting me politically and the telephone industry was against me politically and the competitors were for me politically and the networks, the NAB, was against me. It was all the sides you can imagine. Kind of how we all view ourselves, the good guys versus the bad guys, the white hats versus the black hats. We’re the young aggressive, upstart companies and it was a lot of fun and it was also the right thing to do and it also had to do with Colorado and much of Colorado’s industry, so it was a good constituency for me as long as I could keep the communication workers as part of the alliance, which we did in a very uneasy way. Then the ’80 election came along and that was the real whirlwind, that was the real earthquake for the industry because so many people in the Reagan landslide got beaten and one of the people who got beaten in the Reagan landslide was Lionel Van Deerlin.
MAXWELL: Lionel Van Deerlin lost that year.
WIRTH: Torby had died in the late ’70’s, Van Deerlin became the chairman of the Sub-Committee. He was a very nice guy, knew about the industry.
MAXWELL: Really nice man.
WIRTH: Very nice man, but not a high powered, aggressive guy and we had a lot of competition on the committee because I had all these companies coming to me to push, push, push, but Van was the chairman and there was sort of an uneasy thing.
MAXWELL: Well, he was very easygoing.
WIRTH: He was a very sweet guy, a really nice guy and felt threatened by me and he had a very smart staff guy named Chip Shoeshane, do you remember him?
MAXWELL: I remember him well.
WIRTH: Chip had been Torby’s guy, as I remember, and then was Van Deerlin’s guy. A young Congressman, by the way, got elected about that time, named Ed Markey, who had worked for McDonald and then took McDonald’s place and joined the Sub-Committee as an ally and Torby had always been pretty pro-competition and Markey became that way, so we got another ally coming in. Van Deerlin lost in 1980 and that was a real shuddering deal because I became, suddenly, by complete chance, three term Congressman, chairman of this growing Sub-Committee in the middle of this war. It was fabulous for me, it was fabulous for the cable industry, it was fabulous for all the upstarts and it was a terrible thing, as you can imagine, for the telephone companies – “Oh my dear, what is this all about?” One of the first things, the NAB had a conference in Las Vegas soon thereafter and I went out and they asked me to speak, as they do with Sub-Committee chairs. So I gave a speech on the frequency and the use of the spectrum and how there ought to be a spectrum use fee. I said, “I don’t understand why the networks and broadcasters are using the spectrum at no cost at all to them.” In Colorado, if you graze on the public lands with cattle you pay a fee, why shouldn’t the networks and the broadcasters pay a fee too? Well, I remember this hall of about 2,000 people was absolutely dead silent.
MAXWELL: I was there. I remember. That was really something.
WIRTH: Not a word. Not a sound in the room and then hands up all over the place during the questions and answer period and the hostility was overwhelming. So within about a month, I had totally alienated the owners of all the broadcasters. And then we had a hearing on early election returns and the broadcasters had broadcast in 1980, when Carter got clobbered by Reagan, had broadcast early election returns.
MAXWELL: From back east, right?
WIRTH: From back east, and they influenced a lot of the elections in California because people in California then knew who’d won and a lot of people got beaten in California, particularly a lot of Democrats got beaten in California and Jim Korman, who was the chairman of the Congressional Campaign Committee, was one of the people who got beaten in California in a very close race, but turnout just dropped after three or four in the afternoon because the broadcasters had already, through exit polling, projected the winners. So we had a hearing on early election returns and this is where I first met Ted Turner. I had chaired open the hearing on early election returns and shouldn’t there be a restriction on broadcasting results until the polls are closed? The argument being the broadcasters have no right to intervene in elections, which they were doing by broadcasting results; the broadcasters arguing, well, this is a first amendment issue and it’s information that they have to have. Well, the broadcasters came in there with all three networks there and all the head news directors and the presidents of the networks were there and Turner was there representing NCTA, the Cable Television Association.
MAXWELL: Well, he had started CNN then.
WIRTH: I don’t know if he’d started CNN, then.
MAXWELL: Well, 1980.
WIRTH: Yes, ’80. But he was the chairman of NCTA, so he was representing the National Cable Television people, it wouldn’t have been CNN at that point. They might not have been big enough.
MAXWELL: They probably weren’t big enough.
WIRTH: This was early ’81, spring of ’81. Right after the elections, so it was right after the election day and I remember Vangordon Soder, representing, I think it was CBS or NBC.
MAXWELL: That’s right, it was CBS.
WIRTH: It was the most arrogant testimony I have ever heard about who are you in the Congress to be telling us what we can broadcast.
MAXWELL: They haven’t changed.
WIRTH: We broadcast in the public interest and we follow 1st Amendment rule and we do what we’re supposed to do and we broadcast the news the public has a right to know. Well, I had just the night before talked to Ross Perot of all things. Ross Perot had called me up, I had never talked to Ross Perot before in my life. Ross Perot had called me up the night before and told me this story about all of his people in Iran. The hostages had come back and he had had people in Iran – remember Ross Perot was very involved with getting people out of Iran and so on.
MAXWELL: Right, I remember very well.
WIRTH: And Ross Perot, this is by total coincidence, had called me up to tell me this story about his people who’d been in there and the fact that a couple of the news networks had known this all the time and what a good job they had done at not letting anybody know. Not letting anybody know.
MAXWELL: Right. That’s interesting.
WIRTH: They’d kept the secret and allowed them to do this and I think that he had been put on to this, somehow, by the networks to point out that the networks were good guys and how responsible they were.
MAXWELL: With the opposite result.
WIRTH: But it was just the opposite result and so after Vangordon Soder did this, I then told the Ross Perot story and I said, “If you guys feel a compulsion to let everybody know everything that’s happening all the time, why didn’t you tell the story and let the public know that Ross Perot had people in there trying to get hostages out of Iran in ’79 and ’80? You’re saying on the one hand you’ve got to let these election returns out because the public has a right to know, didn’t the public have a right to know about this all the time?”
MAXWELL: Right, that’s great.
WIRTH: This isn’t a story of the public has a right to know, it’s a story of what you decide the news is. That’s what it is. You’re the people making the decision, the editorial, which is perfectly appropriate, but let’s not hide behind the public has a right to know everything and therefore we have early election returns. Well, you could feel – it was right after the Iran situation, just an incredible coincidence – and you could feel the air go out of the balloon of the broadcasters’ argument right there. Just wooosh. And during that same hearing, Ted Turner testified and I had met him before, but I didn’t really know him. He testified on behalf of the cable television industry and he had this testimony. So after all the three networks had testified, the cameras turned – you know, every camera in the world was there because it was a hot deal. Congressman Moffat used to say, if you have a hearing having one television camera is a good thing, having more than one television camera is a better thing and having television cameras in double figures is bliss. Well, this was bliss. There were banks of television cameras. So, Turner, very theatrically, held up his testimony before all the cameras and tore it in half like this and then picked up a pad of paper on which he had drawn a huge dollar sign and just turned it around and faced it to them, and that was his testimony, that it was all about money. It was hilarious. It was absolutely hilarious and here were these guys making all these arguments about public’s right to know and need to know and all that kind of good stuff. It was a great hearing and then we had Ross Perot and Ted Turner, the bookends of that hearing. The end result was that the public interest standard and the networks agreed to embargo until the polls were closed, which is what is largely still done and I hope that now with all the Internet stuff… it’s another issue. It’s become an issue again, but it’s imperative that that happen. Now, the last big hearing we had during that time was when AT&T, they were trying to get, they’d gotten Packwood to push their legislation in the Senate to make AT&T a monopoly and they were trying to get this to happen in the House, we had a series of hearings on it and we had AT&T come down and John DeButs was the chairman of AT&T. Normally the hearings on an issue like this are so arcane, in a great big Commerce Committee hearing room and you’d have in the hearing room would be an occasional lost tourist and some lobbyists and the trade press and that was about it. Well, the day that DeButs came in, the whole room was full, it was jammed. I looked out across this big audience and there’s DeButs and the place is full. I looked around and all these people in the room looked alike. Well, AT&T at that point had a system of what they called angels and every member of Congress was assigned an AT&T executive.
MAXWELL: Had an angel, right.
WIRTH: They had them all come to town to lobby the Congress on this legislation they’d all be hearing. So they’re all in there and so I welcome Mr. DeButs and I said, “Would you, Mr. DeButs, do us a favor. I see that you probably have a lot of colleagues in the room and maybe you’d like to introduce them so the committee will know who’s here.” He started over on one side and after about fifteen minutes, the far left hand side of the Commerce Committee hearing room, a great big hearing room, in fifteen minutes he’s just gone through a whole bunch of these guys and we still had the rest of the room to go. We were going to be there all morning introducing these people, which I’m sure DeButs would have thought was a fine idea. So I said, “Well, Mr. DeButs, let’s just make it easy. Why don’t you just ask all your colleagues who are here to stand up.” Well, the whole room stood up and sort of made a statement. I just said, “For the record, I want to point out that these people are all here, I believe, paid for by the rate payers. They are paying for all these individuals to be here to lobby in the Congress to ensure there is no competition in the telecommunications business.” This was heating up. We were really getting tough. I had incurred, by this point, the total enmity of the broadcast industry because of early election returns and the telephone industry because of “they all stood up” hearing, it became a famous hearing. The lines were really laid out, so we decided we’d better move quickly in all this, while we were still around, because they were going to do everything they could to really put on the political heat. So we started very rapidly to write the legislation: two different bills. One was the legislation which would provide competition in telephones, which didn’t break up AT&T but built fire walls between AT&T long lines and Western Electric and the regional operating company. That led to that legislation, which was very stormy and we got it marked up and we got it through the Sub-Committee and then it stopped in the Full Committee in 1983 or ’84. It was a very, very painstakingly, difficult, complicated piece of legislation.
MAXWELL: It was.
WIRTH: Tommy Corcoran, who was a Congressman from Illinois, was on the Sub-Committee, had voted for it in the Sub-Committee. Jim Broyhill, from North Carolina, was the ranking Republican. They’d all supported it in the Sub-Committee, then we got to the Full Committee and AT&T really put on the full court press and it was towards the end of the session in late ’84, I think, and Corcoran really filibustered it. So the legislation never came out, but then very soon thereafter, not long thereafter, the justice department had kept the AT&T lawsuit going. They had to choose between the IBM suit and the AT&T suit and they let the IBM suit go and they kept the AT&T suit going. Judge Green had responsibility for the consent decree and overseeing the consent decree and he ruled against AT&T, if you’ll remember, that fall. AT&T had been running like crazy to try to get legislation done before Judge Green could do it and they couldn’t get it through the House. We had the alternative piece of legislation. Judge Green ruled and his ruling was largely taken from our legislation.
MAXWELL: Yes, it read like it.
WIRTH: Great pieces of his ruling came right out of our legislation. I had never met Judge Green in my life, but that Christmas right after that, AT&T had opened up a phone store in Masagowan in Northwest Washington, so I went up to the phone store to see what it was like. I said, “I’m going to go out and maybe buy a phone and see what this was like.” You could do these things. I was standing in line and standing in front of me in line was this little short, funny looking guy.
MAXWELL: You’re kidding! That’s when you met him?
WIRTH: That’s where I met Judge Green, who’d also gone to the phone store to try to figure out what this was all about and I met him there. That’s the only time I ever met him in my life and we chatted right there.
MAXWELL: Wow! That’s the only time you met him?
WIRTH: We might have been at some other function someplace else, but the only time I ever talked to him was standing in that line and I said, “You’re…” and he said, “You’re…” Of all the places! It was amazing. So that was the AT&T piece and that change has been enormous.
MAXWELL: Well, it changed the world.
WIRTH: While we were running the AT&T legislation, the lead guy in that was a staff guy, Howard Simons, and then on the cable side, the lead staff guy was a guy named Tom Rodgers.
MAXWELL: Right, who’s a good friend of mine now.
WIRTH: Who started CNBC and is now Prime Media. Prime Media, right?
MAXWELL: Yes, Prime Media.
WIRTH: Anyway, Rodgers, or Ro-jers as we called him, Ro-jers was the drafter of the cable legislation and we were moving that and had these extensive hearings on the subject and it was to help and allow the cable industry, essentially, to get out from under this vast regulatory structure that had been built by the FCC with the networks in collusion.
MAXWELL: Piecemeal, too.
WIRTH: Oh, yes. But it all had been carefully put together. So allowing them from out underneath this apparatus. It was the cable television industry’s dream. But coming with that we thought there were also some public interest requirements. This was very extensive and lengthy negotiation doing this in sum, this extensive negotiation and discussion. We decided that if the cable industry gets all of these things, there are some public interest responsibilities and one of those was anti-redlining: you can’t wire just the affluent parts of town, you’ve got to wire the whole town. Public access requirements, some other requirements of affirmative action. There were five or six items in the bill that were viewed by Jim Mooney, then. Mooney had been Jim Bratamus’ chief of staff. I got Mooney the job working for NCTA.
MAXWELL: I know.
WIRTH: After Bratamus got beaten in that 1980 landslide, Mooney was looking for a job, Bratamus had been a good friend of mine and I got Mooney this job at NCTA. Anyway, Mooney was a very tough guy for NCTA and he got the instructions from the NCTA board that we’re going to fight all these other provisions and this legislation. So, Trygve Myhren, who was from Denver and a good friend of mine, was leading the fray. So he and Jim Mooney were fighting this piece of cable legislation that in fact was the greatest thing that the cable industry ever could have wanted.
MAXWELL: In hindsight they know that.
WIRTH: In hindsight they know that, but during the time, they were so angry they weren’t even talking to us. So we were there with the networks on the one hand – but we had this momentum going and a lot of local cable television companies were with us. NCTA wasn’t, but the “Mom and Pops” were. CATA, they were all out there, they were working for us.
MAXWELL: Steve Effros.
WIRTH: Right, Steve Effros and then some of the other big guys understood what was going on. Ted understood it and Monty understood it.
MAXWELL: I think Gus did, Gus Hauser.
WIRTH: Gus Hauser understood it, but the official NCTA position was to oppose and I don’t know what was going on inside the industry, but the final time we got it passed in the House and we were in conference with the Senate and they decided that the way in which they were going to drill this deal was as an affirmative action piece, which we knew was a very strong legislative affirmative action piece. They were going to go see Orrin Hatch and get Orrin Hatch to kill this piece of legislation and that would start to unravel these parts of the bill. So I got wind of this and I went over and met with Orrin Hatch in the Vice-President’s room in the Senate. I’d never met Orrin Hatch before, never been in the Vice-President’s room before and never been over there in the Senate before to speak of, and I went over and met with Orrin Hatch. He’d been briefed on this legislation. He’s a real conservative guy and I though, we’re going to lose this, we’re going to lose this for sure. Orrin Hatch looked at this and he said, “You know, this is the right thing to do.”
MAXWELL: He’s a nice man, actually.
WIRTH: He’s a wonderful guy. Orrin Hatch is a believer. You get Orrin Hatch and he’s just great in his own quirky, conservative way. I’ve loved the guy ever since. In the face of all this, Orrin Hatch said this is the right thing to do. It passed on the floor and I remember the vote. I was on the floor of the Senate when it happened. Hatch said, “Well, come on down.” So I sat with Hatch during this vote. Here I am, a young, liberal, Democratic Congressman, right? With Orrin Hatch, the senior, conservative chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Well, this thing passed and I remember looking up into the balcony and there was Trygve and Jim Mooney sitting up there with the biggest scowls on their faces you have ever seen as this legislation, which is beyond their wildest dreams passes down there and Hatch and I have been great buddies ever since. This is the strongest affirmative action ever written into a piece of legislation in the United States. I don’t know, maybe something’s been done in the last few years. So the cable television bill became reality. At the end of 1984, we had on the Sub-Committee this group of warriors starting ten years before, over this ten year period of time, felt pretty good about it. We had occasioned massive competition in the telephone industry and this huge re-write of all the communications law that relates to the cable television industry and the broadcasters.
MAXWELL: So what do you think of the current telecommunications politics?
WIRTH: I don’t really know enough about it to know what’s going on. I know that there are all these inroads but I decided that after I went to the Senate that I’d done enough for communications. God hadn’t put me on Earth to spend my life doing communications, so I wanted to do a number of environmental things and I wanted to find out about some foreign policy things and join Sam Nunn on the Armed Services Committee. So I didn’t join the Commerce Committee on the Senate side and there were a lot of the guys in the industry, particularly the ???, were very much hopeful that I would continue, but then I decided I just didn’t want to do that.
MAXWELL: We were all hopeful at the time.
WIRTH: So I didn’t and I really stayed away from it except to protect the industry when problems came up. That big re-write, we killed that a couple of times just as I was leaving the Senate and then I just lost track of it since. I have to go, Paul.
MAXWELL: I know you have to go. So you’re working with Ted now, do two or three sentences on that.
WIRTH: Well, Turner established, Turner and I had gotten to know each other during these wars and he’s a great idealist and he decided that he was very angry and the Congress for not paying our dues to the UN and then in 1997 made a lot of money from the merger with Time Warner, he made a billion dollars in 1997 and he said, “I want to pay off the debt to the UN and what I’ll do is pay the debt and sue the Congress for a billion dollars.”
MAXWELL: Right, I remember. Classic Ted.
WIRTH: You can’t sue the Congress and a private party can’t pay off a national obligation to the UN, but Ted said, “I’ve already committed a billion dollars.” So he asked me, I was at the State Department, I left the Senate in ’92 and I was one of the first of that whole group to leave. There was a lot of people that have left the Senate since, it’s really a shame I think. Politics is not what it used to be. It’s not nearly as much fun as it was. That was really fun what we were just talking about. That whole decade was just so interesting and these alliances, you forged these alliances. I remember Tom Blyly, who was this conservative chairman of the Congress Committee, was our great ally. Blyly was fabulous! He and I were such close friends. We were working across a political spectrum a mile wide. Orrin Hatch, you know. We were really sitting down and figuring out and thinking about the public interest. You can’t do that anymore. I think it’s so much harder to do because the power of lobbying and the power of money in politics, Paul, is so great. It’s just devastating.
MAXWELL: You used to always call it “mother’s milk”.
WIRTH: Yes, it is.
MAXWELL: And all the fundraisers we all went to.
WIRTH: Oh dear, I remember them, at your house, everywhere. Anyway, so we set this thing up and we’re now off and running. Ted’s billion dollar commitment – we’re spending a hundred million dollars a year. We’re doing a lot of public affairs on behalf of the UN. We did a big campaign to get the debt paid off and that was successful; Congress and the administration have come to an agreement last fall. We’re doing a lot on trying to leverage funding coming in and I have to go right now to a big Rotary lunch over here; we’ve got a major partnership with Rotary on eradication of polio in the United States and around the world.
MAXWELL: I just had to get a polio shot. I’m going to Tanzania and Kenya and that’s a shame, we’ve got to get rid of it. So good for you. Thanks.
WIRTH: Thanks a lot. Talk to you soon. Thanks for doing this.
MAXWELL: This oral and video history was made possible by a gift from The Hauser Foundation Oral and Video History Project of The Cable Center Oral and Video History Program.