We Didn't All See The Aging It Told Us We Saw

TELEVISION is once again displaying its immense power to create, change or manipulate public opinion.

It may well be that many Americans will never see President Reagan as they did before the first Reagan-Mondale debate, even if the president is re-elected. Every time Reagan fails to finish a sentence, eyebrows all across the country will be raised in wonder over whether this president in his mid-70s has lost some of his acuity.

Yet this perception of Reagan is to a large extent the result of TV coverage and commentary following the debate, rather than just a reflection of what people themselves felt as they watched the presidential contenders tangle.

Judging from the first round of opinion polls, conducted immediately after the debate, it is highly unlikely that many people suddenly jumped to the conclusion that the president was showing his age. Some of those polls did not even show Mondale to be a clear winner of the debate.

A snap poll by ABC News, for example, showed viewers about tied, with 39 percent saying Mondale had won and 38 percent saying Reagan had. A USA Today survey had Mondale as the winner by 39 to 34; a New York Times-CBS poll had Mondale the winner by 43 to 34.

All of those first-night polls were fairly close in terms of who had won the debate, and none gave Mondale a clear majority. Only one of the nonpartisan national overnight polls, conducted by the Gallup organization for Newsweek Magazine, turned out to be substantially different. And that poll asked a different question -- not who had won, but who had done a "better job." Gallup's finding was that Mondale had, by 54 to 37 percent.

(Worth noting was a first-night report from Richard Wirthlin, who polls for President Reagan. Wirthlin was the only pollster to say that interviewing had shown Reagan doing better than Mondale in the public's view. That result might make some of us question Wirthlin's other findings, and take a harder look at what he puts out between now and the end of the campaign.)

So, in the beginning, there was little reason to suspect that many Americans had suddenly come to the conclusion that their president was too old. Even what might be called the first in a second-round of polling -- a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Monday and Tuesday -- did not reveal a sudden concern about Reagan's age.

When asked why they thought Mondale or Reagan had won the debate, only one person of 1,035 interviewed cited the president's age as the main factor.

By that time, however, the idea that Mondale had thrashed Reagan had begun to snowball. Among those interviewed Monday night, 55 percent said Mondale had won, 19 percent said Reagan had. Of course, that line of thinking only followed the late-night Sunday and all-day Monday TV news programs and commentaries, almost all of which pronounced Mondale the winner and focused on Reagan's weak spots.

What had been a good showing for Mondale began to be fixed in the public mind as a rout.

The pattern became more extreme Tuesday. Through the vagaries of polling, the sample interviewed by the Post and ABC News that day included more Republicans than Monday's, giving the group more of a pro-Reagan cast. But even this survey depicted Mondale as the winner of the debate, 55- 16.

By Tuesday, questions about Reagan's age also were more firmly planted. The Wall Street Journal ran a tough, lengthy article that morning; TV news shows followed suit, with ABC airing a particularly tough report.

Also on Tuesday, The New York Times and CBS got back into the polling act, conducting their second post-debate survey, a one-night affair. In it was inserted a direct inquiry bearing on the age factor.

The result, as reported in the Times Thursday, was that "half the public, including 27 percent of probable Reagan voters, think Mr. Reagan is 'not as sharp' as he was four years ago."

The Times account also noted that "the impression (that Mondale was the winner) of the debate was intensifying as time passed," pointing out that 66 percent in the new Times-CBS poll said the former vice president had won, with only 17 percent giving the debate victory to Reagan.

By midweek, another major interpreter of public opinion, talk show host Johnny Carson, had gotten into the act with jokes about makeup and Reagan's looks. A producer for Carson told a reporter on Thursday that he might want to "Betamax" the "Tonight" show monologue from now through the election.

A long with this new examination of Reagan came an altered view of Mondale. His public image was transformed from that of a weak, often ridiculed also- ran into that of a lively, masculine, aggressive competitor who, conceivably, had a chance to win.

Gone from the TV accounts of Mondale's daily activities is the standard "In another bad day for Mondale . . . " In its place have come comments about big, enthusiastic crowds.

In a Post-ABC News survey completed Oct. 2, 41 percent of the people interviewed said they had a favorable opinion of Mondale, 49 percent an unfavorable opinion. Those were terrible results. The debate changed that, but so did the subsequent TV commentary.

In the Monday night interviewing, 55 percent viewed Mondale favorably, 45 percent unfavorably. On Tuesday, with a sample of people who liked Mondale less to begin with, views of the challenger had turned even more sharply: figures for that night were 57 percent favorable, 43 percent unfavorable.

And the second Times-CBS poll showed the number of people thinking of Mondale as a capable leader to be increasing. The figure had been at 37 percent in the week preceding the debate; it was at 44 afterward.

How ironic. The tube has suddenly turned hot for Reagan, the acknowledged master of TV, and pleasantly cool for Mondale, heretofore its victim.