Straight-Talkin' Prudes

The silver linings in the Senate Republicans' censorious agenda


If Republicans—and by extension, conservatives—ever wonder why libertarians are suspicious of them, they need look no further than the U.S. Senate. For all their yammering about being the party of limited government, individual responsibility, and traditional American liberty, the Republicans there sure have a funny way of showing it.

Consider how they're whiling away their majority in what senators love to insist is the "world's greatest deliberative body"—a sobriquet every bit as self-styled, grandiose, and unconvincing as Michael Jackson's calling himself "the King of Pop" and Miller High Life dubbing itself "the Champagne of Beers." Increasingly, it looks like the Republicans can't get their act together on Social Security privatization, with Majority Leader Bill Frist flip-flopping like a fish in the sand on whether his colleagues will deliver any proposal for personal accounts this year. (Let's just hope for his patients' sake that the Tennessee surgeon is less shaky with a scalpel than with legislative promises.)

But the upper-chamber Republicans know damned well they need to stop the dread menace of "indecency" from invading the family rooms of the 85 percent of American households that shell out hard-earned cash to watch cable fare ranging from Comedy Central's raunchy Chappelle's Show to Nickelodeon's gay agitprop (so conservatives swear,) SpongeBob SquarePants to Showtime's overtly Sapphic The L Word.

Ted Stevens, from the famously mild-mannered state of Alaska, is mad as hell and he's not going to take anymore. "Cable is a much greater violator in the decency area [than broadcast]," Stevens recently told the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the odious industry group that represents over-the-air TV and radio affiliates. "There has to be some standard of decency." For Stevens, that standard apparently can't be decided on a home-by-home basis, though he also unconvincingly insists that "no one wants censorship." Except, of course, Stevens and, one presumes, the membership of the NAB, who want to undercut the competitive advantages of cable and satellite TV.

The Senate is already widely expected to follow the House of Representatives' lead and increase existing broadcast indecency fines from $32,500 to $500,000 per infraction. Now Stevens has pledged to push legislation that would extend broadcast decency rules to cable and satellite systems. He won't have to reach far for a bill: Last year the Senate Commerce Committee narrowly voted down a plan to do just that.

The Alaskan aesthete is joined in his fatwa on free expression by Sen. John McCain of Arizona. "McNasty"—as he was known in his fighter-pilot days—dubbed his old presidential campaign bus the "Straight Talk Express" and was known to tell off-color jokes to an adoring press corps. But he told Hardball's Chris Matthews that the salty language and sociopathic behavior on HBO's massively popular The Sopranos trouble him and hence are worthy of Senate hearings. "What I really wish is that the people who make these programs would show some restraint," grumbled McCain, who also confessed, "I love The Sopranos." Go figure. With friends like that, free speech doesn't need many enemies.

There are two potential silver linings in the brewing Republican attack on must-see TV. The first is that it's unlikely to work. Apart from the likelihood that the courts would grant cable and satellite First Amendment protections, The Sopranos isn't popular in spite of its adult themes but because of them. If cable—especially premium cable—is forced to be as "decent" as network TV, expect to see "Cedar Revolution"–style protests in the streets of America.

The other silver lining? If Stevens and McCain are going to hold hearings on, say, whether creators of The Sopranos should have named a character Big Pussy (much less brutally offed him), they're less likely to be voting on, say, the next job-killing proposal by their party pal Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to raise the minimum wage by $1.10 over the next 18 months.