Rep. Paul Trible (R-Va.), running for the Senate, is at his desk. He is in shirtsleeves which means, I suppose, that he is one of the guys. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who is also in shirtsleeves and -- despite a personal fortune and a marriage to Elizabeth Taylor -- is also one of the guys, stands there. They are looking at something -- maybe a bill. "We're really going to have to fight hard for Virginia on this one, Paul," Warner says. Trible nods. "I agree." Virginia is holding its breath.
What was it? A declaration of war against North Carolina? A jobs program for Virginia only? A plan to change the state's weather pattern? We are not told. This is Triblevision, a television commercial like most political commercials. It tells you absolutely nothing about either the man or the issues.
The Trible commercial is just representative of a mid-term election campaign that is nothing less than an insult to the intelligence of the American people. Complex, important issues are compressed into 30-second television spots in which candidate after candidate is shown either at a construction site or talking to old people, boldly announcing his intention to put people to work or protect Social Security.
If the situation were not so tragic, it would be funny. The most important thing a democracy does -- hold elections--gets reduced to 30 seconds of playacting by candidates. Even the old 60-second spot is largely gone, a victim of the high cost of air time and the reluctance of television stations to turn over "so much time" to politics.
In many markets, the 30-second spot, once a relative cheapie, is no longer a bargain. In New York, a prime-time, 30-second "buy" during "60 Minutes" costs about $12,000. In Memphis, it's $1,200; in Washington, D.C. $7,500, and in Des Moines $1,000. And that's wholesale. The media consultant usually tacks on a commission of 15 percent.
Kicking television has become a favorite American pastime. But when it comes to politics, there is something to be said for doing it. The high cost of buying television time -- the only way, after all, to reach large numbers of people -- is the prime reason why candidates are so reliant on money from political action groups and why, if they win, they remain in their debt.
The longterm effects are pernicious. The special interests who supply the money do more than buy a candidate's gratitude. They also set the agenda for what will be discussed. If you want to know why no one is making 30-second spots about the plight of the underclass or about the feminization of poverty, it's because candidates are addressing the issues important to the people who put up the money. Even if they were not, it would be impossible to tackle a really complicated issue in 30 seconds. Try explaining the problems of the Social Security system in half a minute. No wonder candidates prefer to ride horseback across the plains.
The dirty little secret is that it doesn't have to be this way, and the media consultants who make political spots would be the first to say so. As one of them, Robert Squier, points out, the airwaves really do belong to the people. The way things are now, the people give them away (by awarding a license) and then have to pay for the use of them. The upshot is a political discourse usually fragmented into 30-second bursts of hucksterism with an obligatory debate tacked on at the end. More time than that, television is reluctant to sell. Even President Reagan could not buy time for a political speech. He had to pretend it was nonpartisan, then two of the networks gave him what they wouldn't sell.
The remedy is up to the very politicians who are now running. They can change the law so that the people's airwaves can be used to benefit the people; so that the television industry would be forced to do something worthwhile in exchange for getting a government license to print money. It would be refreshing, for instance, to see just one 30-second spot where a John Warner turned to a Paul Trible and said, "Paul, we've got to do something about these insulting spots." For Virginia. For us all.