In living color


Washington --IT LACKS the human grandeur of the lone hero facing down the tank in Tiananmen Square -- or the historic sweep of communism's collapse at the Berlin Wall -- but this first global TV psychodrama of the chicken game that traditionally precedes war has its own fascination.

It's set in Arabian exotica with sheiks in Mercedes, F-15s spooking camels, GIs playing volleyball while the young men they soon may be trying to kill kneel on prayer rugs a few miles away. It's all there on your TV screen no matter what part of the globe you occupy.

It's schoolboy posturing as old as the first dare and double-dare face-off between rival cave-dwellers. ("We'll meet when I say;" "No, we'll meet when I say".) But never before has the ritualistic soap opera been transmitted simultaneously to the entire human race.

Even the bit players become instant celebrities. The faces of obscure Iraqi envoys overnight are as familiar as Barbara Walters', Brent Scowcroft, Dick Cheney and Jim Baker regularly roust themselves out on Sunday mornings to make the counter-case. We hear the moves kibitzed in the British parliament, the Kremlin, the Council of Europe.

Central casting could never have dreamed up the two protagonists:

George Herbert Walker Bush, Andover-Yale, chauffeured son of Wall Street banker, over-taught by stern parents to share half with every child in sight, intent on shaking the wimp image that resulted.

Saddam Hussein, fatherless at birth, shaped by an embittered uncle, assassin while still in his teens, ruthless murderer and klutzy miscalculator, awesome bully in small matters, inevitable bungler of major ones.

Hitler and Mussolini had their absurdity captured on grainy footage, but earlier potentates escaped. They had the good fortune to live before camcorders. Their portraits were softened by sycophant artists; their pratfalls, retouched by historians who ignored the ludicrous.

The trouble with the chicken games they all played, as anyone bloodied in a schoolyard fight is likely to remember, is that, when goaded across the line, people frequently get hurt. World War I started by accident and wiped out almost a generation.

There's no reason to think televising the newest diplomatic roller derby will make such miscalculation more likely. Nor much reason to hope it will make it less.

Still we have to hope. It's all we've got. Some merciful god seems to watch over democracy, at least part-time.

If standing naked before all humankind makes more awkward the business of backing down, it also forces leaders to think twice about the opinions of those whose lives they wager. It measures the cost in indelible pictures. Vietnam was primitive TV compared to what we'll see next time.

You can watch the previews in the strutting of those pot-bellied Iraqi reservists, in the earnest, shy American faces at every station break. "Hi, my name is Pfc. Ambrose Jenkins. I'm from Locust Valley, Nebraska, and I want to say 'hello' to my wife Louise and my kids, Pamela and Jason. Keep brushing your teeth, guys."

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