Without a poll to guide us, it is hard to tell for sure who won and who lost in the Monday night fight, but the bet here is that the real winner has to be Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who must have been shaking his head in disbelief that such good fortune would fall into his lap less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
For Dole, who is leading in the Iowa polls, the timing was simply splendid. Had the confrontation between CBS anchor Dan Rather and Vice President Bush occurred on the eve of the caucuses, Bush would have reaped bushels of sympathy votes from viewers who were appalled, and properly so, at the way CBS handled the interview from a start that was disingenuous at best to a finish that was truly appalling. But with a couple of weeks to go, voters have plenty of time to get over their instant wrath at Rather and CBS and to start shaking their heads and wondering how on earth Bush got himself into such a spot in the first place.
Bush claims to have been ambushed by CBS. He says he was invited to be interviewed for a political profile. Instead of focusing on his now- celebrated resume, however, Rather savaged him with discrepancies about his role, or nonrole, in the Iran-contra affair. Bush did not come off looking good, but then he doesn't figure to on that score. It was clear from the outset of the scandal that he figured to be its preeminent victim, damned if he was involved in the White House machinations and damned if he was not.
From the moment the camera went on in his office, Bush attacked. He accused CBS of misrepresenting its intentions when it requested the interview. Minutes after the interview was off the air, his office was able to produce a letter from a senior producer for CBS news in which he invited Bush to appear for a profile. The word profile was used three times in the letter.
It seems clear from Bush's early reaction that he expected something very different from what he got. Ambush journalism, let us recall, is nothing new at CBS. It helped make "60 Minutes" and it made Mike Wallace, the veteran "60 Minutes" correspondent. Rather is a graduate of "60 Minutes." What seems to have happened here, however, was more like a sting operation than an ambush. Bush was lured into the interview and once the camera was rolling he couldn't get out of it.
He landed a solid blow when he accused CBS of misrepresentation. But then he and Rather fell to squabbling and talking at the same time, very much like two little boys yelling "did" and "didn't" to each other. Bush was not looking the least bit presidential. He wasn't even looking vice presidential. He was looking like a politician whose staff had betrayed him and misled him into a political Waterloo.
He was looking like someone who was blowing the presidential nomination: If a man can't put together a staff that can protect him against duplicity and embarrassment at the hands of a TV network, how can he be expected to put together a staff that will protect him and the nation against duplicity and embarrassment at the hands of foreign powers?
Bush must have felt the desperation of his situation when he reached down into the dirt and threw the mudball at Rather about letting CBS run black for several minutes Sept. 11 after he stalked off the set when the U.S. Open tennis match ran long. It was a nasty blow that demeaned both men.
Rather, however, who had been skidding on thin professional ice for much of the interview, bailed him out when he cut him off. "I gather the answer is no," has to go down as one of the lowest points in the history of TV news. It was rude, offensive to the viewers, unfair and disrespectful to the vice president of the United States.
CBS executives are closing ranks around Rather and saying they were yelling in his ear to cut the interview off because it was running too long. The episode speaks volumes about television journalism, whose practitioners are forever trying to be taken seriously as journalists while a good bit of their work is strictly show biz. That includes their looks and their salaries. Rather delivered a terrific show. It was, however, demeaning to journalism, to Bush, him, and the profession.
CBS President Howard Stringer defended Rather, saying "that's what Dan does for a living, that's what a great reporter does for a living," and "it's all part of the political process."
If it was so great, you'd think that CBS would have had the smarts to let it go on -- at least long enough not to be disrespecful toward the vice president. If the network executives are that committed to journalism and the political process, they could have even let the newscast run over.
After all, they did it with a tennis match.