By Tom Shales
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Television can still rise to the occasion when the occasion warrants.
Yesterday's coverage of the funeral of former president Gerald Ford found network correspondents and technicians on their best behavior for the most part, the solemn beauty of the ceremony at Washington National Cathedral virtually forcing them to exercise restraint and good taste.
What might be called TV's networks of record -- ABC, CBS, NBC and cable's CNN -- covered the proceedings from early morning, following the casket from the Capitol, down the Senate steps, along Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House and then to the cathedral, where "eulogizers," as CBS's Katie Couric called them, paid tribute to the well-liked 38th president.
As the big and more established networks conveyed a kind of official aura, NBC's quirky cable outfit MSNBC offered more flavorful and colorful, but still respectful, coverage. Chris Matthews, anchoring with Keith Olbermann, at one point told viewers -- as cameras scanned the famous faces of those gathered in the cathedral -- "These are Washington people. For better or for worse, this is the Establishment you're looking at right here. This is the A-list of the people who run this city."
Matthews dares to say what other people are thinking but refrain from saying -- for better or for worse.
Couric and many of her colleagues on the big networks committed the common error of talking over scenes that did not require any talking -- or, to the contrary, called for quiet. When the choir and band performed "America" and other patriotic songs, Katie and crew kept up fairly constant chatter. Over on NBC at the same time, presidential historian Michael Beschloss unfortunately was directed to yak away, ignoring the music in the cathedral.
ABC anchor Charles Gibson showed the most tact and discretion, limiting his remarks to things viewers actually might need to know. Gibson, of course, has more authority and experience behind him as anchor and correspondent than either Couric or NBC's Brian Williams. Not that Williams lacked for intelligent comments; he just perhaps made too many of them.
Incredibly, CBS cut away from the ceremony in the cathedral to show viewers excerpts from an interview that President Ford had given correspondent Phil Jones -- in 1984! Ford, discussing widespread protests erupting in the country when he took office, said he hoped "voices were lowered" under of his calming influence. Bob Schieffer then quoted the "voices lowered" remark -- while the chorus and orchestra played "America the Beautiful."
All this talk of lowered voices could lead a viewer to talk back to the correspondents and anchors: "Lower yours, for heaven's sake."
Worst of all was an NBC commentator who interrupted the choir singing "America the Beautiful" to repeat a story he'd read in the New York Times -- about the Fords' dog having pooped on a White House carpet. "There are so many stories like that," the reporter said -- and so many more opportune times to tell them.
The CBS coverage was marred by a director's or producer's insistence on dividing the screen up in boxes, with a large amount of space taken up by "The Death of a President," the title CBS gave its coverage. The network seemed to be waving its own flag in viewers' faces, while ABC tried to keep its logo and other extraneous material to a minimum.
The pictures, after all, were beautiful as the sun poured down on the city. The honor guard, lined up in two columns on the Senate steps, cast dramatic, striking shadows in the early-morning light. Later, the cathedral looked regal and imposing in a master shot of it sitting on a high point in the city.
Throughout the coverage, anchors and reporters marveled at the poise and stamina of Betty Ford, the president's widow, who had been through hours and hours of memorial activities even before the trip from the Capitol to the cathedral began. She entered the cathedral on the arm of President Bush and then sat among, and seemed supported by, her children -- son Steven on one side and daughter Susan on the other. It was a moving portrait of family solidarity.
One realized what a tremendous impression the Fords had made on the country in spite of the fact that Ford was in office a relatively short time after Nixon's resignation.
Television was a presence at the event in more ways than one. Former president George H.W. Bush brought up the '70s lampooning of Ford on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," with Chevy Chase portraying him as physically bumbling even though Ford was, many commentators said, the most athletic president of his century.
Bush also did an impression of Dana Carvey doing an impression of him ("Not gonna do it, wouldn't be prudent"), a reminder of how influential "Saturday Night Live" has been in American pop culture. In the interest of propriety, though, it might have been better if the elder Bush had stuck to the topic of Ford and not mentioned his own experience with the show. He might also have mentioned that Ford took the ribbing so good-naturedly that he taped a "live from New York" opening in the Oval Office for use on the program.
The current president praised Ford for making an unpopular decision -- the pardon of Nixon -- and sticking to it. That was also a theme of Bush's most recent radio address. Some reporters saw it as Bush's thinly veiled attempt to compare his own unpopular pursuit of the Iraq war with Ford's action -- and a way of saying both men were courageously standing on principle.
The eulogy by former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was not memorable. Brokaw said Ford asked him last year to be part of such a ceremony whenever it was held, although Brokaw said modestly that Ford made the request because "I think he wanted to be sure the White House press corps was represented" -- not because he thought Brokaw was a brilliant orator. Brokaw, who seemed to smirk throughout his remarks, ended with a banal "Farewell, Mr. President. Thank you, Citizen Ford."
Cameras kept panning the faces in the cathedral -- an auspicious assemblage that included former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Bush and their first ladies. CBS relied too much on what might be called Coffin-Cam, long and steady shots of the flag-draped casket, which, after all, didn't do anything but sit there, as was to be expected. Viewers would rather have seen the faces of the famous and celebrated.
CBS coverage overall was disappointing, and ABC's was probably the best of the major networks.
On CNN, meanwhile, Wolf Blitzer took the strange step of interrupting the coverage to apologize for a goof made the previous day on his "Situation Room" show. According to a media-watchdog Web site, Blitzer said he "just wanted to make a correction" and continued: "We had a bad graphic. We were doing a piece on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in this new year, 2007. Unfortunately, instead of saying, 'Where is Osama?' it said, 'Where is Obama?' I'm going to be calling Sen. Barack Obama to make a personal apology."
Yes, you do that, Wolf.
If not all the speeches praising Ford were unusually eloquent, the music in the cathedral was. During the singing of "O God Our Help in Ages Past," a camera caught Betty Ford mouthing the word "beautiful" to her daughter. After the services, Matthews raved about Denyce Graves's singing of the Lord's Prayer. It was a breathtaking performance.
Chimes rang outside the cathedral, and Olbermann, Matthews's on-air partner, said gratuitously, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls." Matthews pronounced the ceremony "sublime" and said he thought President Bush's eulogy was better than his father's, an opinion not likely to be widely shared.
As Ford's body was taken to Andrews Air Force Base, the major broadcast networks signed off and rushed back to the cacophony of regularly scheduled commercial programming. Cable news networks stayed with the story.
It was a memorable morning, a national gathering by television, and a reminder that for all the talk about blogs and YouTube and MySpace, there are still moments and events that only the networks can adequately convey.
This, obviously, was one of them.