The war between the media and the politicians escalated dramatically last night when Dan Rather engaged George Bush in a nine-minute verbal brawl aired live on "CBS Evening News." The anchor and the vice president slapped each other around like the Three Stooges minus one.
As a political event, it upstaged the president's State of the Union address. As a clash of opposing forces, it may even challenge Sunday's Super Bowl.
Switchboards at CBS, Bush campaign headquarters and even the other networks went wild after the broadcast, probably the most explosive confrontation ever televised between a network anchorman and a high-ranking federal officeholder.
Today there are likely to be calls for impeachment. No, not George Bush's; Dan Rather's. Cries for his scalp may become deafening.
Fellow broadcast journalists at other networks, who did not want to be quoted by name, said they were outraged or appalled at Rather's conduct during the interview, and that his repeated badgerings and interruptions of the vice president were discourteous and unprofessional.
At the same time, one newsman conceded that even though the interview produced no news, it was such a pyrotechnic spectacular that it became news. It was electrifying television even if repulsive journalism.
At the outset, Rather told viewers that Bush had refused to be interviewed for a piece about his possible role in the Iran-contra arms scandal and had instead insisted that he appear live on the show and that his remarks not be edited. The taped report ran a little less than five minutes. Then a live camera showed the vice president sitting in his Capitol Hill office, a photo of Ronald Reagan on his desk.
Bush took the offensive almost immediately, claiming CBS News had misrepresented itself when it told the Bush campaign the report was just another in a series of profiles of 1988 presidential candidates. "If this is a political profile for an election, I have a very different opinion as to what one should be," Bush said.
The hostility level rose steadily and produced such exchanges as this:
Bush: "May I answer that?"
Rather: "That wasn't a question. It was a statement. Let me ask the question, if I may, first."
Rather: "I don't want to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President."
Bush: "You do, Dan."
But Bush pulled out the heavy artillery about 6 1/2 minutes in, as he complained about Rather's fixation on particulars of the Iran-contra affair.
"It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran," Bush told Rather. "How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Now, would you like that? I have respect for you, but I don't have respect for what you're doing here tonight."
Boom. Crash. Thud. Rather looked momentarily stricken, frozen in time. The "seven minutes" Bush referred to was by most accounts six, and it happened when Rather left the news set while in Miami, not New York, but Bush had really lobbed one into headquarters nevertheless.
Rather, recouping, told Bush that his record and qualifications for president are "much more important than what you just referred to" and went on, becoming more bellicose than ever. He had lost control of the interview and seemed in danger of losing control of himself.
At one point, continuing to ask questions even as Bush continued to rattle on, Rather said accusingly, "You've made us hypocrites in the face of the world! How could you sign on to such a policy?"
At the end he asked Bush whether he'd hold a press conference before the Iowa caucus, and when Bush said he'd already had press conferences, Rather interrupted him one last time: "I gather the answer is no. Thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Vice President."
Bush was cut off.
What had just ended appeared to have been the biggest ambush interview of all time, but the question was, who ambushed whom? The Bush people said they'd been sandbagged by a devious CBS. But CBS said Bush's camp knew very well that he'd be asked questions about Iran-contra since network promotional announcements had been trumpeting the fact all weekend.
It was suggested by CBS sources that Bush came looking for a fight because this was seen as an opportunity to bury "the wimp factor" once and for all. No one would call him a wimp after he'd stood up to Dan Rather. The instant analysis was that the interview had been a triumph for Bush and a wipeout for Rather. CNN carried a report on the close encounter, saying it became "increasingly testy as it went along" while observing that it featured "a decidedly combative George Bush."
Rather's brief comments to a reporter right after the broadcast were summarized in his declaration "We are at peace." He indicated he hadn't done anything wrong and that all hell had not broken loose. It was a little like Jimmy Durante's famous line upon being discovered leading a kidnaped elephant out of a circus in "Jumbo": "What elephant?"
Tom Bettag, executive producer of "CBS Evening News," was asked if Rather would apologize for his conduct on tonight's show.
"I can't imagine a reason why he should apologize," Bettag said. "He did his best under extremely difficult circumstances. I think the vice president set the tone for the aggressiveness."
CBS issued a statement yesterday saying that it felt the purpose of the interview had not been misrepresented to Bush. Might Rather make at least some further comment or clarification tonight, if not an apology? "We'll give that some thought. We haven't addressed that yet," Bettag said.
Even Bettag conceded that most of the calls pouring into CBS were critical of Rather's conduct.
Bettag said he did not consider Rather to have been hostile and rude. "I don't think so. Things became heated, yes, but I think Dan responded to that very well. If anything, the frustration was that we were expanding the interview to an unprecedented amount of air time, and Bush still was not answering the question."
The interview was slated to run between three minutes and 8 1/2 minutes, Bettag said. It ran almost nine. If Rather seemed abrupt in cutting Bush off at the end, it was because producer Bettag was screaming into Rather's earpiece, "Dan, you've got to get off. Cut it, cut it," Bettag said.
Three other news stories had to be killed because the interview ran so long, he said.
Even if Bush was merely posturing in his indignant reactions to Rather's questions -- merely trying to dewimpify his image in one blinding moment of television time -- the incident is bound to increase animosities between candidates and the reporters who cover them. Gary Hart and Richard Gephardt have already made some hay campaigning against the media. Now Bush has joined the fight. Perhaps we are headed for a three-party system.
The Rather Bushwhacking is the latest in a series of pivotal, colorful clashes between political figures and journalists on television. Roger Mudd's unusually tough interview with Edward M. Kennedy in 1979, during which Kennedy seemed confused about why he wanted to be president, is often credited with having ended his candidacy that year.
Rather has his own history of troubles, not all of them involving interviews with politicians. Some in the industry consider him a lightning rod for calamities that have ranged from his six-minute disappearance to questionable on-air statements about whether CIA chief William Casey was really dead and whether former ABC correspondent Charles Glass was really taken hostage in the Mideast. Last night's strange interlude will not help extinguish rumors that Rather has become emotionally unstable.
His own most celebrated, or condemned, previous encounter with a big-time politico was with Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, when Nixon asked Rather playfully if he were running for office and Rather shot back, "No, Mr. President; are you?" It went down in the annals of journalistic stunt-flying; the reporter was becoming the story, not just covering it. At ABC, Sam Donaldson's shouts and taunts to political figures have become his trademark.
More and more, politicians are circumventing the tough network reporters in favor of media exposure over which they have a larger measure of control. Candidates can now beam themselves to local stations via satellite for interviews that are largely games of patty-cake. The George and Dan Show is bound to make that practice even more popular.
"There's nothing new here; I thought this was a news program," Bush barked at Rather last night. Indeed, for all Rather's straining and flailing, he got very little news out of the encounter. "All we can do is do our very best to ask the questions we ought to ask," Bettag said, "and if he doesn't respond to that, that's news."
In a political environment ever more ruled by images and symbols and video impressions, Rather and Bush may have raised questions more significant and profound than any having to do with transitory scandals.
For the moment, as the image war continues, the politicos have definitely taken new ground under Gen. George Bush, and Gen. Dan Rather seems to have gone back to Bataan.