I AM INTRIGUED by President Reagan's paean to television. I take some exception, however, to his calling it "a neighbor." In my case, the box is more of a pusher. I'm hooked, and if the time I give it were money, I'd be a pauper.
The president said that we watch a lot of television because we are "seeking continuity and reassurance." I don't know which one has made me someone who would no more miss "M*A*S*H" than a meal.
The right wing was extremely huffy when the first-run series went off the air. Said all us freaks were anti-war. That may be true. But it's really about people getting along with one another, and I find it instructive even in some episodes that I've watched seven times by now.
"Reassurance" may be the reason I watch "The A-Team" when I should be doing the dishes or reading the Congressional Record. It's reassuring to see rotten people getting it in the neck somewhere.
I don't tell myself I can quit whenever I want to. I know better. If that were so, I wouldn't be watching "Colombo" at 2 o'clock in the morning. I know why. He's no better at life's detail than I am. He often forgets what he came for, and his car and his coat are rumpled, but his material is not, and I can follow the plot.
The same is not true of "Kojak," the other detective of my heart. He talks through his teeth, and I miss a lot of what he says, with the result that I'm often not quite sure, as he cuffs the culprit, who did what to whom or why. But Kojak has me by the throat all the same -- I rarely meet such focussed, uncluttered personalities in my work.
But the president was right: People like Kojak "visit us as if they were a friend or a relative coming by for the evening. "I wish Kojak would come by a little earlier; he doesn't get there until 11:30 p.m.
He maes me feel good about the police, the way "M*A*S*H" makes me feel good about doctors. Unfortunately, I fell upon "Coma" the other night, and that has made me extremely concerned about my health. You know the story: A wicked surgeon has gas pumped into the operating room, and . . . . Maybe you don't want to hear about it. I didn't, either, but I watched.
My only quarrel with the president is that he said all these true things to two heroic teen-agers. I don't think you have to sell television-watching to that age group -- or any other, for that matter. I don't want to be stuffy, and I know our president never is, which is one of the reasons Americans like him often in spite of themselves.
I know how he feels about television. It has been good to him.
Many parents try to get their children away from the box so they can mow the lawn or practice the piano. Some parents urge their children to read. They might have welcomed a good word from him about books, which have also been known to ive a sense of "continuity and reassurance."
He had another chance the same day to put in a plug for reading. He was before students of Jefferson High School. He told them he was going to give a teacher a ride in the space shuttle. It was by way of showing his high regard for education. It will, of course, make marvelous television.
But nary a word about the printed page from our leader. In fact, he seemed to be telling us that libraries may be overrated. At least he pointed out that the schools he attended when young had no libraries. The unspoken message was that it hadn't, obviously, hurt him.
It is true that the absence of a school library can be overcome by the presence of a good public one in your neighborhood. The president didn't say anything about it, though. He's not one to stick his nose in a book.
Sometimes, though, it's the only thing to do. I needed, recently, something for an overdose of Dallas and the Republican Convetion. The box could not help: it was still chewing over the proceedings.
I needed an antidote, particularly, to Joan Rivers, who had not contributed to the ennui of the affair, but certainly to the overkill. I knew where to go. I took down my trusty volume of Jane Austen and read, from start to finish, for maybe the fourth time, "Persuasion." Raucous Rivers faded from the screen of my mind. I went to Bath with decorous Anne Eliot and Frederic Wentworth, the sailor she had so unwisely rejected eight years before.
Every scene was described in infinite nuance, every character drawn with finest strokes. Words really do matter, after all. "Image" is not everything.
Our president is not, however, an indiscriminate lover of television. Having spoken of it so kindly on Monday, he dealt a mortal blow to Public Television on Wednesday, vetoing a bill for further funds. I wish he hadn't done that. I watched "For Whom the Bell Tolls" Monday night. Even with the long fund-raising interludes, it was wonderful.