Another peril averted


LAST TIME, you recall, I promised to discuss presidential politics today but -- lucky, lucky you! -- it now seems we can skip it. I know, I know: You planned to skip it anyhow. I was hoping to skip it myself. Discussing presidential politics on a sweet day in June, as Lyndon Johnson once said of the jokes at the Gridiron dinner, is "about as much fun as throwing cow flops at the village idiot."

You never heard of the Gridiron Dinner? It's your basic old-fashioned show-biz roast in fancy dress. Once a year Washington media swells throw a white-tie party for America's biggest shots and entertain with good-fellow-type insults.

You know who Lyndon Johnson was, of course. Long-ago president.

You may not know Howard Kurtz, however. He is the party to thank for saving us from talking presidential politics today. Mr. Kurtz covers the news media for the Washington Post, and in Sunday's paper he discussed presidential politics so adequately that nothing remains to be discussed.

In summary he said: With the election still 16 months off, talking presidential politics is silly.

So why is it already such a hot-news item in Washington? Because news people down there, being not so hot at covering complicated stuff like Medicare and Medicaid, prefer to cook up the fun kind of story they love -- that's why.

"The race is on! Seabiscuit slow out of the gate! Gramm Cracker faltering at the first turn! On The Dole widening early lead, but he's not home yet, folks . . . "

Here I paraphrase most ham-handedly Mr. Kurtz's elegantly composed message. He will doubtless write to complain. Everybody does. It's gotten so you can't do anybody a rank injustice in a newspaper column anymore, or commit a thunderingly obvious error without hearing about it.

(Yes, Sen. Arlen Specter, you are indeed a Republican moderate, and are making a commendable struggle to keep moderation alive in the Grand Old Party, and it was, therefore, unjust of this column to say that Republican moderates were being eaten by the right-wing crocodiles.)

(And yes, New York Times, it was wrong of this column to assert that the progress of the super-cyber-tele-cable-phoni-communications bill had been largely unreported by the press when, in fact, the Times reporter Edmund Andrews had for months done a tireless, first-rate job of reporting it.)

OK, back to not discussing presidential politics. I was tempted to do it only because I sometimes live close enough to Washington to catch the local fevers. These are transmitted through strange weekend television shows that seem to be watched by everybody in Washington and by nobody everyplace else.

Each show assembles four or five people with press passes and such aggressively held political views that they seem like paid agents of the Democratics or Republicans. The day when even the dimmest reporter had too much self-respect to shill openly for a political party seems to have gone out with the Linotype machine.

Those who know this scene say most of these birds have minimal interest in the news business anymore but, like all those bystanders who find themselves caught in the O.J. Simpson case, are shooting for big paydays in the lecture and publishing industries. Since TV glory requires a memorable character, you see these media star-yearners playing political slapstick on TV.

If you live within a 50-mile radius of Washington these shows are essential to the well-tempered weekend. After two or three, the viewer tends to agree with the shows' assumptions that vital matters are being discussed or, more likely, shouted about.

Television does this to people. The mind quickly stops struggling, then accepts whatever is being served on the menu. Like bean soup in the Senate dining room, the one subject always on the menu of these TV shows is presidential politics. Weekend after election, they dwell on what Tuesday's election means for elections two years, four years, 14 years from now. As Mr. Kurtz suggests, sure it's dumb, but it's more fun than government.

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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