Watching President Carter's first "fireside chat" on television the other night, I was remided of Oscar Levant's description of Hollywood: "You have to sweep away the surface tinsel to get to the real tinsel underneath."
This is not offered as a snide or disparaging remark about the speech, which, in many ways, seemed very appropriate. What I am talking about is the tinsel of the televised production, and what it suggests about the way Carter may use TV in the future.
The production of the speech (at times I couldn't be sure if I was watching a production or listening to a speech) was pure tinsel. President Carter sat in a Chippendale chair before a burning fire in the White House library. Above the fireplace was Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. Carter wore a blue shirt, a red tie with figures and an open cardigan. All that was missing was Amy's new dog curled up at his feet.
No doubt the intent was to protect an aura of simplicity. But the obvious planning that had gone into this production disturbed me somewhat. All the effects - the fireplace, the portrait of Washington, the cardigan - kept getting in the way of what I thought he was trying to tell us.
Carter is not a simple man. He is about as simple as Cardinal Richelieu. And I am beginning to think he makes John F. Kennedy look like Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, when it comes to understanding and manipulating television.
Carter understands that television is not a literal but a symbolic medium. While I'm sure that carrying his own garment bag is a sincere gesture, I'm equally certain that he understands its symbolic value on television: namely, that this is a man-who is used to carrying his own bags.
I also am sure that he really wanted to walk Pennsylvania Avenue. I'm equally confident - especially since he planned at three weeks before the inauguration - that he understood its powerful symbolic value on television.
But television, while powerful in the projection of symbols, can also be very tricky when the symbols are displayed in an obvious manner that somehow seem out of character with the preceptions we have come to expect from our Presidents.
There's nothing carved in stone that says a President has to wear a business suit when he addresses us (although that is what we have come to expect). A President can wear a sweater if he chooses. But was he trying to suggest that he is just like all the rest of us? Or was it a contrived effort as symbolism designed to make us aware that the thermostat in the White House had been turned down?
And what of the fireplace? Was it designed to evoke Rooseveltian symbolism? FDU apparently did not like the term "fireside chat" - a phrase coined by Harry Butcher, head of the CBS news bureau in Washington. People who were on hand at the time say there never was a fire in the hearth when FDR spoke to the nation on radio. What does the symbolism mean to more than half the nation's people who were not yet born when FDR made those "fireside chats," or who never heard of them until network commentators made the comparison?
What was that all about when the camera pulled back to show the portrait of George Washington? Carter looked away from us and kept talking into another camera. Who was he talking to -Washington? Gilbert Stuart? Posterity?
At the risk of sounding dyspeptic, I would suggest that President Carter dispense with all these attempts at contrivance - and that includes his plans for radio call-in sessions. This not governing. It is tinsel television and radio designed to create symbols that may, in time, become in his own mind gratifying substitutes for decision and action.