ONE exchange, at least, in the debate between Ross Perot and Vice President Al Gore on the North American Free Trade Agreement should have brought a smile to the lips of the television audience. It came shortly after Mr. Gore seemed to accuse Mr. Perot of being in a position to profit personally from a defeat of the agreement. Mr. Perot snapped, "Now, do you guys ever do anything but propaganda?" To which the vice president replied, "Isn't that your business, also?"
The notion that Ross Perot, who has spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money advertising his opinions on public issues, would accuse someone of engaging in propaganda was certainly laughable. That Mr. Gore would respond in kind to the charge was equally derisory.
The Clinton administration, which maintains a "war room" for the selling of its health plan, operates one of the most thoroughgoing, alert, inventive, well-oiled public relations machines that this country has ever seen. Admitted disciples of the Reagan public relations team (they have even hired one of Ronald Reagan's advisers, David Gergen, to help craft Mr. Clinton's image), the Clinton operatives have broken new ground on their own. Mr. Clinton's "repositioning" of the Democratic Party into the "mainstream," which included his presentation of himself as a "New Democrat," was a masterpiece of public relations engineering. The administration's quick-footed adoption of the new talk-show formats has kept it a step ahead of its competition.
On issue after issue -- from the dropping of the nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general to the decision to concentrate on domestic affairs at the expense of foreign affairs -- the compass needle of administration policy has reliably followed the magnet of public opinion. (To this generalization, however, one notable exception must be acknowledged: President Clinton's insistence on a budget that will, however modestly, reduce the budget deficit.)
The truth of the matter, however, is that scarcely anyone in American politics is in a position to criticize anyone else for resorting to propaganda. Propaganda -- otherwise known as public relations -- has, over the last few decades, gradually overgrown American political life. At the right hand of every politician stands the pollster, telling him what the public already thinks and would like to hear again (preferably many times over), and at his left is the image-maker, telling him how to get that message across.
American citizens today, in fact, probably face the world's most refined machinery for manipulating opinion. The reason, paradoxically, is to the credit as well as the discredit of our political system. The propagandists must be skillful because the citizens they target remain free. Because the citizens are free, the propagandists must actually persuade. The citizens may be asked to choose between two lies, but they still do choose.
That was scarcely the case under the regimes that are our chief historical rivals for the prize of most skillful propagandist -- the totalitarian regimes of this century. When the American pioneer in public relations Edward Bernays paid a visit in the 1930s to Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, he was dismayed to see a copy of one of his own books on the shelf. Hitler had already expressed his indebtedness to the techniques of Madison Avenue in "Mein Kampf." Goebbels and Hitler, however, did not need the counsel of Bernays' books for long. Once the Nazis got into power, terror was brought to the aid of propaganda, and political opponents were heard of no more.
It's startling today to recall how many of the techniques of modern campaigning were invented by Hitler in his drive to power: the practice of flying from city to city (in the second of his self-described "Hitler over Germany" campaigns in 1932, he flew to 50 cities in 15 days); the emotive use of radio; the organization "down to the last detail" (Goebbels) of the ceremonial aspects of all his public appearances; his brilliant use of the new medium of film; his understanding that his mass meetings, in his words, "burned into the small, wretched individual the proud conviction that, paltry worm that he was, he was nevertheless a part of a great dragon, beneath whose burning breath the hated bourgeois world would go up in fire and flame."
But when he became dictator, his need to convince the paltry worms of anything evaporated, and by the time he launched World War II he had all but withdrawn from public view.
No such regal seclusion is possible, of course, for American politicians, who, if they wish to stay in power, or even put through a mere piece of legislation, must treat us to ever more spectacular extravaganzas of political propaganda, which may, like last week's debate, include shocked denunciations of political propaganda.
Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.