The afterwash of the Judge Robert Bork affair has produced, predictably, a counterwash critical of the "politicizing" of the confirmation process.
However, political professionals understand that whatever succeeds will be done. And they know with certainty how politics, including confirmation hearings, has been radically changed by modern television. To many of us, this is not a congenial turn of events, but, as Mr. Dooley said, "Politics ain't beanbag."
When television arrived, storefront campaign offices and evening rallies to which the faithful repaired to listen to the oratory became increasingly obsolete. Machine politics fell on hard times. Who needs a political boss when he doesn't have to go through the boss to reach his troops? Dramatics replaced recitation of virtue. The presentation of the candidate's better angles offers fewer asset opportunities than the exposure of the opponent's misdeeds and/or misspeaking.
The candidate no longer spends his waking hours pressing the flesh, passing out campaign cards, exhorting the multitudes. He can't. He's too busy courting fat-walleted contributors. There is a new "elite" now, made up of money raisers who thrash about in the marketplace putting the arm on prospective givers. When the candidate counsels with his inner circle, those who raise the campaign cash are inside that circle. Candidates covet fund gatherers more than strategy designers. Why? Because the passageway to the voter's television set is an insatiable toll road, costing immense sums to gain entrance to.
The McCarthy hearings and the Kefauver traveling troupe of the 1950s were the first glimpses of the "new politics." It became plain with them that there was irresistible drama to be exhibited in a televised equivalent of gladiators in the Coliseum. The Kennedy/Nixon debates introduced the American public to hand-to-hand unarmed political combat on prime-time TV. The people loved it. The LBJ advertising team created a little girl in a poignant countdown, plucking petals off a flower as the picture dissolved in the explosion of an atomic bomb. The first national negative advertising scored a direct hit on the consciousness of America. No matter that President Johnson ordered it off the air after one airing. The damage was done and the message was clear.
The Watergate hearings expunged whatever doubts might have existed in the minds of the delicately inclined. And the Oliver North/Iran/contra show delivered the coup de grace to whatever hesitancy still existed. TV ratings rule. Whatever holds the attention of the audience, whoever can more simply and passionately present his case, wins the run.
All this is revelatory to the political professionals, an epiphany they take as the gospel of the day. Each new successful intrusion into the public political spirit begets another. So long as it is possible to hold in thrall a sufficiently large number of people while a point of view is driven home with either brute force or insidious grace, and so long as the chances of winning the game lengthen in direct proportion to the creativity and the dramatic narrative of the televised approach, all past traditions in every part of the political arena are put to hazard.
In a satellite-served, cabled, VCR-friendly and televisioned world, never before has personal appeal been more appealing. Oliver North confounded and astounded his critics with the television persona he displayed. Clad in his warrior garments, boyish looking, evangelical sounding, he blew away the opposition -- at least temporarily.
Judge Bork never got off the launching pad. His fertile and nimble mind lay in the shadows, while his face and form disturbed the undecided and his learned responses failed to stir the almost-leaning. On the other hand, George Shultz, who is not mistaken for Robert Redford, triumphed because he wielded, with masterly skill, the new weaponry of TV persuasion: believability and passionately presented convictions.
To those who say this is a helluva way to run a country, the professionals are unheeding. Voters in their living room have made these decisions, not the professionals. In a country devoured by some 42 hours a week of average home TV viewing, deluged by thousands of programs all competing for the eye and favor of viewers, in an environment where dullness on TV is the one sin for which there is no absolution, to an audience numbed by an endless series of visual assertions, is it any wonder that whoever can reach out and grab viewers by the lapel, command their attention, perhaps involve their affections, entreat their sympathy and most of all make them believe, will be two furlongs ahead of whoever else is in the race.
In ancient Athens, it was said that when most people orated, the people listened, but when Demosthenes orated, the people marched. But in ancient times, only those within the sound of Demosthenes' voice could hear and see him. Today there is no limit to the reach of persuasion. The writer, who served as a special assistant to President Johnson, is president of the Motion Picture Association of America.