"They're going to be talking hour after hour after hour," said Dan Rather of CBS News. He was referring to George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, but one could be forgiven for thinking he meant himself and his own network colleagues.
Summits bring out the verbosity in network correspondents -- not that it's ever hard to do that -- and in the first day of coverage yesterday, there wasn't much for the networks to do but state and restate the obvious ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Great video pictures were not especially in abundance, and no matter how much a viewer wanted to feel impassioned about what was happening, the pomp and panoply fell rather flat.
Nevertheless, the airwaves were thick with Gorbatalk.
"It would not be an overstatement, I think, to say this is truly a historical moment, what we are witnessing here," declared Tom Brokaw of NBC News over scenes of the White House welcoming ceremony. "This is the beginning of the political redefinition of the world as we have known it in our postwar time."
Wow! So momentous, and yet so strangely unaffecting. One problem was the White House ceremony itself, which sounded a sour note of prelude. The superpowers get together in Washington to powwow over peace, but what's presented as a greeting to Gorbachev is an anachronistic display of war pageantry. Glasnosty it wasn't.
"These ceremonies have become a bit more militaristic over the years," a seemingly shocked Rather noted, as the troops stomped by and Bush was seen wiping his nose with a handkerchief. The fife-and-drum corps and the 21-gun salute are remnants of another epoch that might mercifully be laid to rest in the cool age of television, much as the Soviets appear to have retired the missiles and tanks they used to trot out on May Days.
And how about those "Ben-Hur" trumpets sounding Hollywood fanfares as the Soviet limos crawled up the White House driveway? The dignitaries should get credit for keeping straight faces. It was certainly as glitzy as anything during the much-maligned Reagan years.
Summits are notorious for not producing much solid news until they are over, and this one's going on for four days. Clearly the networks were yearning, burning and pining for some little unexpected moments yesterday. And the obliging Gorbachev provided them, just as he did the last time he visited Washington.
The first came at 4 p.m., but only CNN, the all-news network, was there to cover it live.
Gorbachev, returning to the White House for the afternoon session, popped out of his limo near the diplomatic entrance and ambled over to what CNN's Frank Sesno called the White House "stakeout position" for network crews. Another CNN White House correspondent, Pam Olson, guided him to the cameras and Gorbachev answered three questions about the progress of the talks.
He didn't say anything substantial, but the deviation from the schedule was welcome. Then, just before 6 p.m., came another unscheduled Gorbachat. Gorby came out of his White House session and fielded questions from assembled reporters.
CBS apparently offered this encounter to its affiliates, but WUSA (Channel 9) here was busy with one of its marathon weather forecasts and ignored it. The Baltimore affiliate, WBAL (Channel 11), alertly carried it.
WRC (Channel 4), the NBC affiliate, carried part of the session but then cut away for a commercial and a station break. On WJLA (Channel 7), the ABC affiliate, Renee Poussaint noted the press conference was occurring but blithely blabbed right over it, then introduced the weather. In Washington, nothing must ever get in the way of the weather.
Finally, a third Gorbachev sighting occurred upon his leaving the White House grounds. He took another of his trademark strolls, this one at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and unfortunately viewable only through a very long lens from a CNN camera mounted on top of the Washington Monument. Gorbachev spent a good five minutes milling among the crowd.
"He's crossing the street now," exclaimed delighted CNN anchor Bernard Shaw. "He's working the other side of the street now." Shaw was thrilled that something unpredictable had occurred, and viewers had to be thrilled too.
Incidents like these underline a modern media reality: If you want to see it happening as it happens, you have to be watching CNN. Even CNN couldn't go live with close-up footage of Gorbachev's flesh-pressing outing, but it was captured on tape by a crew from -- of all stations -- Washington's WTTG (Channel 5), the lowly Fox affiliate.
CNN duly credited WTTG when it aired the footage at about 6:40 p.m. It showed a jolly, smiling Gorbachev plunging into the crowd and talking at length with a young woman. This was the kind of intimate event that makes great television -- as well as great public relations. After a long-winded day of numbing officialese, the summit finally began to seem exciting.
NBC had its own exclusive to crow about Wednesday night. It was alone among the big three networks in airing, live, the arrival of the Gorbachevs at Andrews Air Force Base during "NBC Nightly News." Both ABC and CBS were on the air with their newscasts too, and could have televised this symbolic and important happening, but they were flubbing around with pretaped pieces and blew it.
Lane Venardos, the CBS News veteran producing that network's summit coverage, suggested yesterday that the summit may see more of these unplanned events partly because the Soviets are so bad at planning anything.
"The Soviets want to be a world-class press power as well as a world-class power period," Venardos said, "but they can't match White House advance men in terms of knowing what's going to happen and then making it happen. We still don't know what Gorbachev is going to do in Minneapolis this weekend. That would be unthinkable with a U.S. president."
Gorbachev seemed kind of a Grumpychev on first setting foot in the States, perhaps because of some of the acrimony of his Canadian visit, during which, said Ted Koppel on ABC's "Nightline," the Soviet president appeared "testy." There were other signs that media infatuation with Gorbachev may finally be waning. Brokaw took a look at Gorby and said he "seems to have put on some weight, and he looks a little tired around the face."
Of course, with what he's going through, he has every right to look a little tired around the face.
Come to think of it, Brokaw looked a little tired around the face too.
At CBS News, the summit coverage philosophy appeared to be "more is more." CBS jumped the gun and went on the air at 9:45 yesterday morning, even though there was nothing to report and ceremonies didn't start until 10. By doing that, the network cut into the local Washington telecast of a summit-themed and particularly lively edition of "Donahue."
Phil Donahue's guests included Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, Cokie Roberts, Vladimir Posner, Morton Kondracke and Sam Donaldson. Their haggling and wrangling served as a refreshingly volatile alternative to the staid and sometimes stuffy network coverage.
Of course, the Posner act is getting a trifle tired. He still turns up on "Nightline," and on Wednesday night he shared the studio with a too-friendly Donahue on CNN's "Larry King Live." Posner, identified in the past as a "commentator" even when his role was clearly Soviet spokesman, is so frequent a guest on television during events like the summit that he threatens to make Zsa Zsa Gabor look camera-shy.
But a new Soviet expert has ridden to the rescue: Vitaly Churkin, the Soviet foreign ministry adviser, who turned up with Rather on CBS and with Peter Jennings on ABC, and maybe a couple of other places. He's relatively young, sufficiently personable and unusually well tailored. Says Venardos, "He looks like he just stepped out of an Esquire ad for 'best-dressed foreign spokesman.' "
Churkin could easily become Posner's successor as commie on call to the networks.
In a late report Wednesday night, Rather promised viewers "understandable" summit coverage, and for the most part, all the networks delivered that. They did tend to harp on the central issues of the summit and on the problems Gorbachev is having at home. But then, there wasn't much else to do.
And the network news motto has always been, "When in doubt, harp."
Rather can still be counted on for a colorful or daffy phrase to liven things up, as when he referred to "the great shaft of the Washington Monument" or when noting that it's been said of Gorbachev he could "charm a dog off a meat wagon." Rather even had a few kind words for old nemesis George Bush, acclaiming his "wonderful sense of history" as Bush pointed out items of interest at the White House for the Gorbachevs.
Handling welcoming ceremonies with aplomb is "one of the many things at which Bush excels," Rather said earlier. But the mellowing has its limits. Rather billed the meeting as "the Gorbachev-Bush summit," whereas the White House, expectedly, prefers it the other way around.
Barry Petersen of CBS News spoke of "a wonderful sense of expectation here," whereas Bryant Gumbel of NBC News declared that "diminished expectations" had broken out like hives. It remains to be seen which assessment is the more accurate. Rather and Brokaw were both preferring to look on the bright side.
"With these summits, they always hold something back for a big surprise," Rather said hopefully. As for whether the summit will yet prove to be good television, Brokaw took an even rosier view. "In the past, these summits have had the precision of a minuet," Brokaw told viewers. "This one strikes me as much more rock-and-roll for the next several days."