Maybe the Democrats were playing softball -- a change in cliches if nothing else -- but the networks were still trying to get up a game of hardball. In their zeal to find something to report at last night's siesta session of the Democratic National Convention, the networks finally did agree on one thing: they were the story.
An insidious plot was afoot by anti-Carter forces, reporters told viewers; they were so low that they were actually trying to postpone the renomination of President Carter until after prime time. They were trying to push it into the late-night news fringe, those unspeakably diabolical Machiavellis.
James Wooten of ABC News reported the great prime-time plot. Then Bruce Morton of CBS News reported the great prime-time caper. Then Jessica Svitch of NBC News reported the great prime-time train robbery. Even Walter Cronkite, captain and king, took due note of this devilish strategy.
By this time, the networks had all introduced the same bigwigs umpty-ump times anyway, so they may as well have started doing each other and all but did.
Largely, it was a game of pass the politico. At 7:45, Barbara Walters of ABC News snagged John Anderson, the independent candidate, but it turns out nobody else was standing in line waiting for him. However, Walters also had the evening's first interview with Rosalyn Carter whom she helpfully informed, "You're a sensitive woman and you love your husband." This must have been great news for the first lady.
Only moments later ABC's Hughes Rudd, during a piece on a modern-day Mark Twain observed, "We're just as stupid now as we were 100 years ago."
Yes, but now we have television.
Cronkite received Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in his royal booth at 8:30. Half an hour later, Brown showed up to speak a nearly identical piece on NBC, where Marvin Kalb asked if he minded hopping from anchor booth to anchor booth and Brown said, "I'm not unaccustomed to spending time with the networks."
It took the astute if obviously bored-to-tears David Brinkley to observe that even though it was still prime time in the East, it wasn't yet nearly prime time in the West. Would the Democrats per-chance settle for prime time in the Mountain Zone? Or the Midwest? Did it really matter since hardly anyone could have been watching anyway?
There were other unanswered questions. Would Walter Cronkite's voice hold out through the agonizing suspense of wondering whether his voice would hold out? Would the green balloons continue to float right in front of Dan Rather's face? Might Walter Mondale go off his rocker and propose a co-presidency?
The night was so dull and the network news teams at such a loss for stimulation that for the first time during this convention all three networks carried the ceremonial singing of the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
Unfortunately, country-western warbler Willie Nelson, who appeared to get a much bigger hand than California Gov. Jerry Brown, apparently had "Georgia on My Mind" on his mind for he made mincemeat of Francis Scott Key's key.Nelson sang of a flag with "bright stars and broad stripes" (whatever flag on earth that is), he omitted at least two lines of the song, and sang "from the land of the free" instead of "o'er the land of the free."
He got an ovation tantamount to unanimous approval nonetheless. Perhaps this constituted a referendum for rewriting the tune.
Moments earlier, NCB had shown the questionable tastes of having Tom Brokaw interview Hugh Hefner's daughter, Christie, on the convention floor while a rabbi was speaking the invocation from the podium. But even questionable taste came as something of a relief from the rigourous catatonia of the proceedings.
Secretary of State Edmund Muskie paid his first respects of the evening to Cronkite, who used TV jargon to tell Muskie he was brifly "pre-empted" for shots of Rosalynn Carter entering the hall. This chummy interview ended with Cronkite saying, "My best regards to Mrs. Muskie." You half expected him to make a bridge date on the air.
Then Muskie slew-footed over to Barbara Walters, who probably had not been waiting to pounce outside the front portico of Cronkite's booth, for another interview on ABC. Presidential adviser Stuart Ezenstat also did the old one-two from CBS to ABC or NBC or maybe back to CBS again.
On Tuesday night, CBS News was only four minutes into its broadcast when Rather began interviewing Carter campaign chairman Robert Strauss. Last night, it took all of 16 minutes, but there was Strauss again with more of his unfailingly patronizing palaver. Apparently Strauss has a good deal of credibility with many people in Amercia because he told Rather. "I have a good deal of credibility," and two minutes later he was on NBC saying, "I have a good deal of creditbility, I think with a lot of Americans."
Strauss's credibility thus established by him, the evening moved on to the more important matter of prime time? Somehow, not even at its most parochial and provincial has the eastern liberal press ever gotten bogged down in an internecine fiesta to equal last night's network coverage. An oppressive sense of aftermath hovered over Madison Square Garden like a cloud of volcanic ash from Mount St. Helen's.
Television got another peek at television during a brief shot of a delegate with a small Sony on her lap. From her, it sure looked like she had tuned in another show -- any other show but the Democratic Convention.