What next? Maybe Saddam Hussein will try opening up the funny papers and reading aloud to kids, the way New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia did during a newspaper strike.
Escalating the mad Mideast media war with another of his quixotic uplinks yesterday, the Iraqi president sat down again with a literally captive audience of hostages and their children and rattled on for an hour about alleged U.S. aggression, the dangers of war and his desire to debate George Bush and Margaret Thatcher on television "for the whole world to see."
Responding to this last proposal, State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler later dismissed it as "sick." Saddam apparently will have to continue to do his TV shows without the illustrious guest stars.
The latest Saddamathon was carried in its entirety on CNN at noon yesterday. About an hour later, ABC, CBS and NBC aired excerpts. "I think Saddam Hussein is very TV-wise at this point," said CNN correspondent Doug James from Amman, Jordan. "He certainly knows the power of television in covering this crisis."
Television seems to be not just covering the crisis, however, but mediating it. If, as one can hope, these weeks of media cross-fire do not lead to actual combat, the unpleasantness in the Persian Gulf may eventually be remembered as the war of the satellites, a conflict waged almost entirely via electronic teleplomacy -- through words and images bounced from sky to sky.
In his second attempt at using TV to bypass statesmen and world leaders, Saddam spoke of oil, as one might expect, but he spoke more of milk. The milk of human cornflakes. The milk he says children of Iraq are not getting because of the naval blockade that has been mounted against him. Children will die "by the hundreds if not the thousands" if deprived of "their milk and their food," he said near the end of the hour.
To the "guests" he claimed he was "hosting," Saddam said, "We have not deprived you of any food or milk." If Iraqi children aren't getting their milk, one wonders where Saddam is getting the milk for the children of the hostages, some of whom slept openly as he droned repetitiously on.
"They seem to be going to sleep," Saddam noted at one point. No kidding. The poor little dears were bored out of their skulls.
Earlier, Saddam made a reference to his first outing as a daytime talk show host -- that fireside chat, sans fireside, beamed out of Baghdad last week. Saddam had been seen patting and rubbing children's heads and trying to act avuncular, even while sending the message that these same children could be victims if war breaks out.
Saddam acknowledged yesterday that there had been heavy criticism of this previous appearance, especially from the British. "I don't see why they should be annoyed," he said, almost ingenuously. Saddam's use of television is a strange combination of low motive and high tech. Marshall McLuhan accurately predicted a "global village," but he forgot that in many a village, you can find a big bully.
CNN, meanwhile, appeared to have been stung by criticism of the first Saddam Hussein Show too, having been the only network to air the propaganda piece complete as it came over the satellite by relay from Amman.
Yesterday, CNN went overboard with superimposed disclaimers crediting Saddam's broadcast to Iraqi television ("government-controlled Iraqi television," as anchor Reid Collins hastened to point out) and repeatedly ran a horizontal "crawl" across the bottom of the screen designed to disclaim still further.
The crawl said, "Live video provided by Iraqi TV. Hostages under the control of the Iraqi government." This advisory, sounding a little like a strange production credit ("Saddam Hussein's wardrobe provided by ...") skittered across the screen nearly 50 times. Once, the crawl machine went berserk and the thing flew by at about 60 miles per hour.
Meanwhile, in the lower right-hand corner of the already very crowded screen, the network continuously superimposed the logo "CNN Live," although Saddam was not in fact live but on tape. The tape was coming over from Iraq "live" -- but that's not how viewers were likely to interpret "CNN Live."
Clearly, CNN should try real hard to get its sloppy act together before we are all subjected to the next edition of "Saddam Live," which probably won't really be live, either.
From out of the skies, meanwhile, there appeared a familiar worried face: that of George Herbert Walker Bush, who flew down from far-off Kennebunkport, site of his so-called working vacation, to log a little air time of his own. Before his appearance at a congressional briefing, which began at about 3:15 p.m. and which all the networks covered, Bush could be seen in news footage on CBS bobbing about off the bounding Maine, where he has often been photo-opped in the past few weeks.
On Monday, a Bush boat overheated and the president had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. Yesterday, Eric Engberg reported on CBS, Bush got a fishhook caught in one of his ear lobes. This news was accompanied on CBS by shots of Bush rocking about in the boat, holding up a fish and looking silly -- the floundering president and the presidential flounder.
Clearly the White House thinking behind the Bush appearance from the Executive Office Building was to get Bush seen on television in some other setting than Kennebunkport and in some other company than fishes. The Washington appearance found Bush looking in control but was otherwise a bust; all he did was recap the crisis in an anchorman kind of way.
"Not very newsy," said Tom Brokaw of NBC News once the president took the briefing into executive session and the TV lights went off. "There is nothing there, I suspect, that you have not heard before," Jennings told his viewers on ABC. Bush did refrain from any further press bashing, however, after having grumbled to Newsweek over the weekend that he hadn't liked the coverage provided from the Mideast by Ted Koppel of ABC News and Dan Rather of CBS.
Make that one feather per cap for Ted Koppel and Dan Rather. And, by its omission from presidential rejoindering, perhaps another sign that NBC News has lagged behind the competition in its crisis reportage.
Saddam Hussein grandly referred to his sit-down with the hostages as a "dialogue" yesterday, but he did all the dialoguing for 35 minutes straight before asking for questions, then talked another three minutes before the first questioner got to speak. That was a British woman who asked how Saddam could "use children as a pawn in something they don't understand."
Later yesterday, the Iraqi News Agency said Saddam's decision to allow women and children to leave Iraq was made in response to the British woman's question.
His actual reply was more mere rhetoric, but it was the same conversational rhetoric Saddam used last week. This is definitely a new image for a demagogue and looming world threat; we don't see Saddam banging his fist or flying off into vituperative harangues. His supposedly sophisticated use of television often comes across as crude and obvious, but perhaps the semi-smiling face and the moderate tone of voice are having some of their desired effect on Western viewers.
You wouldn't think so. But one cannot be sure.
"Perhaps he's still trying to put a human face on himself," said CNN's James, "hoping the West will see a different side of him -- a kinder, gentler Saddam Hussein, if that's possible."
If anything, the media war is going to get even stranger. Jesse Jackson, in his new role as a "journalist," could be seen arriving in Amman yesterday in preparation for a visit to Baghdad and his own interview with Saddam, to be aired next week on the syndicated series "Inside Edition." Who knows but that Saddam won't be offered to other talk shows as a possible guest? Today Jesse Jackson, tomorrow Phil Donahue.
More likely, he'll stick to the format he's already used twice: a long monologue followed by stilted chitchat. Perhaps on the next installment, his sidekick interpreter will introduce the president with an upbeat and heraldic, "Heeeeere's Soddy!" Don't say it couldn't happen.