The trash talk of television politics


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton was all over television last Thursday night -- just like the old days before his show, "The Man From Hope," was knocked off the air by such new entries as "O.J.: The Trial" and "The Newt Gingrich Gong Show." But to get on top again for just that one night, the president had to wheel out an all-star cast of special guests.

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The president beamed as he walked down the stairs with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Chairman Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinians. At the same time, a block from the White House, Mr. Clinton's young man, George Stephanopoulos, and a panel of big-time reporters were agreeing that our president was looking better these days because he was being seen less. "It's harder and harder for us to get on the nightly news anymore," Mr. Stephanopoulos said. "We face a kind of blackmail."

He meant that the networks just do not have time for the leader of the free world unless the setting is big and new.

"Well, he had been overdoing it a bit," said journalist Elizabeth Drew, at the conference sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. She and others noted that Bill Clinton was way overexposed. Now his approval ratings are creeping up again; they suspect it has something to do with him not being on the tube.

Quality time

In his way, Mr. Stephanopoulos, who prefers quality television time to daily videotape of presidential jogging, agreed that there is a real downside to being on camera.

You live by the tube, you die by the tube. Death by a thousand jump-cuts.

But hope of coverage springs eternal in the political breast, which is why Thursday's peace special was arranged in the style of a great wedding. The media are indeed blackmailers, driving most of us to greater and greater excess -- from pathetic folk confessing their sexual fantasies, which may be fantasized, to get their 15 seconds of fame with Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake, to politicians growing more and more strident in their dialogue.

"The politics of moral annihilation" was the phrase E.J. Dionne Jr., a Washington Post columnist, used to characterize the new political dialogue.

"It's no longer enough to simply defeat, outargue or outpoll your political opponent. In this new approach to politics, the only test of victory is whether an adversary's moral standing is thoroughly shredded and destroyed."

But the columnist emphasized that it did not start with right-wing demonization of Mr. Clinton. Ask Robert Bork or Clarence Thomas, savaged by liberals ranting far beyond the call and requirements of public service. Or ask Anita Hill.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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