This will sound crazy, but don't you kind of miss the campaign? Don't you kind of miss the political commercials? Don't you kind of miss The Bear? If there was a bear? Don't you kind of miss Walter Mondale? Don't you kind of miss Geraldine -- no, that's too crazy.
It's been three weeks now, three long weeks, without a poll, without a promise, without a think piece about how television is disrupting the political process, without a congressman whining about exit polls and early returns, without one candidate demanding an apology for something said by another (presidents' sons demanding apologies of presidents' wives don't count), without one side charging that the other side's commercials are outrages. Maybe you think you can still hear Dan Rather telling you to vote, vote, for God's sake, in the name of all that's holy, vote, vote, you fools -- but, he hasn't said it in something like 21 days.
The truth is, the campaign went on so long and became such a part of life, at least the life we lead through television, that it might as well get even longer. It might as well go on all the time. Television thrives on combat, and news ratings seemed to go up during the most combative periods of the campaign (people even watched Ted Turner's Cable News Network, they were that desperate), and Ronald Reagan seemed turned on by the whole thing, so why not have campaigns all the time? That is, have them all the time and admit it.
Face it; the guys on "This Week With David Brinkley" just don't look as happily feisty as they did before the election. They look kind of down in the dumps, like somebody took their toys away. The deficit and tax reform don't really ignite the atmosphere. You get the feeling you've tuned in a television network (or ABC, which is close) and here on the screen is a gaggle of old duffers who should be moving chess pieces around a concrete table in Washington Square. Only they're not, they're on TV. One week Brinkley interrupted a fiery dispute about Reagan's social policies so that George Will could slip in a shaggy anecdote about McDonald's. These guys are bored. They need a campaign to kick around.
Not so "The McLaughlin Group," of course. What a television classic that thing has become. You throw a piece of raw meat into the middle of the circle and they unfailingly start chomping and clawing. It's Pavlovian. They would be thrown out of Washington Square. But "the liberals," and the Democrats, and all those resistant to the Reagan mirage have been so beaten back now that there may be little to infuriate Patrick Buchanan and Robert Novak in the months ahead. There's just so much gloating they can do. Uninfuriated, they drift off toward boredom.
Smart, rich school kids in McLean play "McLaughlin Group" at recess. They sit in a circle snarling and growling at each other. But can John McLaughlin keep the temperature turned up through the four years of blissful peace and riotous prosperity that we all know are ahead of us?
If the election has to be over, darn it, at least television viewers can take consolation in the fact that Ronald Reagan won. It's the hoariest sort of truism that Reagan is good TV. Four more years of Reaganalia is a pleasing prospect. Or maybe just lulling. We do know Reagan won't bother us with a lot of televised press conferences the way Walter Mondale would have. Mondale would have carried on about having an open administration and giving the public utmost access to him. None of that kind of talk from Mister Ron!
Utmost access is not what he wants and probably not what we want; good TV is what we want, and the Reagan forces know how to provide it. A visit to a ghetto school, a hearty har-har in a Boston bar, a huffy retort to protesters or Russkies. Ronald Reagan is a fireside chat. And every now and then, he tosses in a gaffe just to show he's human. Actually, since the election, the gaffes seem to be coming from the other side of the room. Brinkley stumbled and bumbled through a commentary whose subject was, of all things, "clearspeak." Johnny Carson, whose monologues are at their very best during campaigns (on Nov. 7, Carson said Walter Mondale had been elected "president of Minnesota") is suffering a strange case of post-electoral liplock. He repeatedly garbles punch lines and jokes; he laughs at his mistakes, but something seems very wrong under that laughter. Very wrong indeed.
And, hey, Ed's getting fat again. This is serious! Let's start the campaign quick! These people just can't go cold turkey.
It wasn't a first term, it was a four-year photo opportunity, or so say those pesky Cynics Among Us. They would claim all those picturesque Reaganny moments stored in our memory banks were staged so that the Tuesday Team could film them for the campaign. Since there will be no next campaign for Reagan, the next four years may not be as photo-opportunistic. Plenty of Ron, but not much of Ron on location. Except that Reagan is sure to suffer the virus that bites any second-term president: What will history say?
Ronald Reagan will want to leave a lot of good film and videotape for future generations to look at. At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Video Museum. In, say, Burbank, Calif., perhaps? Just a little ol' corner of the Warner Bros. lot? Nice cushy lean-back chairs in the projection room? Maybe it's not too early to turn a shovel of earth for that one.
A new term, new images. New places to visit in Mister Reagan's Neighborhood. Here's the rest of him. But some images will endure, and endear: those endlessly repeated shots of the president and first lady ambling toward a waiting helicopter with Reagan gingerly placing a hand to an ear to signify that he couldn't hear the question Sam Donaldson was screaming at him. What tripping and bumping his head was to Gerald Ford, the hand to the ear at the helicopter is to Ronald Reagan.
Pundits in their finite wisdom say that within eight months Reagan will be a lame duck so far as getting legislation passed is concerned, but never underestimate a lame duck who can tap-dance -- a lame duck who's dynamite on TV. One thing about great communicators is that they love to great-communicate. Reagan's biggest TV successes in his first term were the times he infiltrated living rooms on magical video beams to affect the fate of imperiled legislation. He'll have to try harder to pull that off this term, but he likes trying harder. Indeed, in the past few months it looked as though he enjoyed running for president more than he enjoys being president.
Still, this guy is so believable and charming on TV that if he asked every American to send in $100 to help lick that old devil deficit, he'd probably be swimming in checks. That's what he ought to do: host a telethon a la "Jerry's Kids." It would be "Ronnie's Debts." Americans could all phone in pledges and watch the deficit figure go down, mit drumrolls yet. Corporate sponsors could be shamed into coughing up cash, though this administration isn't very keen on shaming corporations, heaven knows.
And Reagan, the genial host, could vow not to go to sleep until the deficit is whittled down to peanuts. We all know how he needs his rest. Or, and this might be even better, he could resume that story about driving down the California coast and refuse to finish it until the tote board went bonzo.
Don't tell me it wouldn't work, either. No one's come up with a better idea. If people will pay 50 cents to vote for Prince over Van Halen in the "Friday Night Videos" rock star of the year election, wouldn't they pay to buy Ronald Reagan some peace of mind? Do you suppose the day of the 900-number presidential election is that far off? Do you think Andy Rooney has thought about this?
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention last July, Walter Mondale demanded that Reagan debate him about economic policies "on television," which he did, sort of, but a key line in Mondale's speech didn't get the attention it deserved. "It's time for a season of excellence," Mondale said, not referring to the new TV season ahead. "Parents must turn off the television [emphasis added, which is part of why Mondale lost]; students must do their homework."
Turn off The Television? Was that wishful thinking by the untelegenic Mondale? Perhaps he thought he could win the election on radio, though Reagan's mellow-fellow baritone had him beat there, too. In a campaign postmortem Mondale admitted, "I've never really warmed up to television and, in fairness, it's never really warmed up to me." Mondale said that excessive reliance on TV could mean a loss of substance in the ongoing dialogue on important issues and warned that life was being reduced to a series of "20-second snippets." True. And Mondale was only about 20 years late with his warning. He may as well have warned us that the commercial interests ruling television might lead to mediocrity in programming.
Although Mondale won't be a dot on the electron landscape any more, Ronald Reagan is still sort of there. "Rerun Time for Ronnie," sang Daily Variety in appropriately show-bizzy terms when he won. One thing Reagan should remember, though: The viewing audience is fickle. Fickle, and with a vengeance. This year they've deserted Magnum in droves for Bill Cosby. Remember how they turned on Mork? Reagan should keep in mind that a public that tired of Grandpa Walton and even grew weary of Walter Brennan in "The Real McCoys" may cool to him as well. Those who live by the tube die by the tube.
Maybe Ronald Reagan was so handily reelected because baby boomers, who make up the largest demographic group in the universe, are just now losing their grandparents. The president is their surrogate video grandpa. Of course Nancy is nobody's granny. Calling her "granny" would be akin to Archie Bunker calling George Jefferson's mother "mammy." I wouldn't do it if I were you.
And what to call Ronald Reagan's recently renewed TV show? One can draft or adapt a title from among the current crop of prime-time programs: "Ronald in Charge," "The R-Team," maybe "Highway to Heaven." Or "Highway to Shining City on Hill." It would be rude to suggest such titles as "Foul-Ups, Bleeps and Blunders" or "People Do the Craziest Things." But considering that some people think we have two realities now, TV reality and actual reality, and that the TV reality has become more "real" to people than reality is, the title could be lifted from a show CBS just canceled. "Dreams."
Here is one more reason to start the campaign again. During the campaign, when Ronald Reagan was a candidate, no TV station could show his old movies because of the equal-time rule. The day after the election, WTBS in Atlanta showed "Knute Rockne, All American," and the day after that, "Kings Row." Last Sunday, a Baltimore station showed "Bedtime for [You-Know-Who]." We should have a campaign all the time, and we should rescind the constitutional amendment that limits a president to two terms. Let Reagan be Reagan, and limit him to that.