IS IT ANY wonder that an age of television "sound bites" produces bite-sized policies? Or that a culture that treats politics like a sport -- and lumps political figures with soap-opera characters -- is producing more celebrities than statesmen?
We are, in a word, trivializing our own leadership -- together with the offices to which they aspire, including the presidency.
I'll put my argument directly, because it's a central dilemma of our age. Solutions to our problems cannot pass through a media filter which demands simplicity, rewards tactics and is transfixed by personality -- particularly when those solutions are complex and require serious debate by an informed public.
What forces have contributed to the creation of this media filter? Competition is clearly a factor. News producers seek to be faster, and often more sensational, at lower cost. Local news programs in Denver offer cash giveaways to attract viewers. Two full minutes of news time have been re-allocated to advertisers by CBS Evening News. So-called innovations such as CNN and USA Today represent sophisticated news packaging, not news collection. More diversity has not increased competition in serious news gathering. As in other industries, competition in news media has occurred in the style and form of presentation not in increased substantive quality.
Finally, journalistic standards are eroding, as they did earlier in Great Britain, by the blurring of the distinction between the serious and the sensationalist press. To keep or capture a worried or confused reader or viewer, sex is often more expedient than seriousness.
I know this moment a headline is being composed by someone whose attention span has just been exhausted which reads: "Hart Bashes Press." Wrong. First, we are all the press. The distinction between producer and consumer, where news is concerned, is practically non-existent. Second, we all want our news simple and our politics spicy. How else to account for USA Today and the ABC News-Break? And someone out there is buying the National Enquirer.
As a candidate, I have been driven nearly mad by questions from concerned citizens that began, "Why isn't anyone saying . . . ?" Because more often than not some of us were saying close to what the questioner was listening for but hadn't heard. Why the confusion? Because the questioner assumed practically anything a presidential candidate said was newsworthy and would be printed or screened. Therefore, if it wasn't seen in the papers or on television, quite obviously it wasn't being said. And, for all practical purposes, the questioner was right.
Recently, I proposed a national course of strategic investments of public and private resources to ensure opportunity and a stable living standard for our children. But few have heard of these ideas because of greater fascination with stories that dominated the evening news -- such things as, for example, the ephemeral charisma of Col. North.
Who wants, after all, to hear about tedious subjects like investment in our future when all television eyes focus on a fascinating or sensational personality. "Television," recently said the eminent historian Barbara Tuchman, "television has become our monarch. It has been a great boon to the ill and lonely, but the degree to which it has impaired the brain cells of the general population has not been measured."
While we sat transfixed by such personalities as the charismatic Col. North, the termites of debt continued to undermine the long-neglected foundations of our national economy. In a single day $500 billion worth of corporate America evaporated on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange like raindrops in the sub-Sahara.
And, as Kurt Vonnegut says, so it goes.
We have created -- all of us -- a media filter that gives us reality short and sweet -- as sweet as possible. The filter lets through simplicity, tactics and personality. It resists complexity, strategic thought and genuine character.
Ideas, new policies, are electronically squeezed like lemons. A recent survey measured the average "sound bite" on CBS News at 12 seconds. Military reform, a proposal for a new foreign policy framework, a plan for strategic investment for national restructuring -- such new departures must find a home on the too-frequently-unread "op-ed" page, where they can be explicated to the great length of 800 words.
Campaigns, the vehicles by which we select our magistrates, are interpreted as sports events. Political endorsements, fund-raising techniques, clever staffs, media strategies, manipulative consultants, sly tactical ploys, all dwarf in media attention of lowly "issues" effort, traditionally relegated to the mustiest, smelliest cranny in the national headquarters.
At the first Democratic candidate debate in 1983, a well-respected, senior political journalist fled the hall within minutes of the opening statements -- complaining vigorously that "issues" bored him. And so it goes.
"Personality" has ever been with us in American politics. And, in proper perspective, that's as it should be. But this year's buzz word is "character," and character is defined in a totally negative sense as everything a candidate lacks or every mistake a candidate has made. Now clearly one must be of sound character to seek to guide our nation. Soundness being judged by a lifetime performance, the caliber and quality of public service, the demonstration of independence, courage, and conviction in voting, imagination and initiative in governance, utmost respect for the public trust, scrupulous integrity and honesty in campaign finance and handling the public's tax dollars. And cause should not be given to doubt the candidate's ability to conduct the people's business.
But are we seeing a new departure -- a departure disturbing if not dangerous? How far are we prepared to go as a society to peek into areas hitherto precluded? Should candidates be surreptitiously surveilled by reporters or private individuals? Should hidden cameras be used? How far should anonymous tips be pursued? Should confidential records be purloined? Should rumors and gossip be widely printed? Should reporters tell untruths to obtain sensational responses? What are the limits?
In the occasionally exciting prying into a candidate's minutes and hours, are we not obscuring in the years of a lifetime and undramatic acts of courage, fortitude, and determination that reveal true character?
That we are even asking such questions seems a far cry from the America of Jefferson and Madison, from John Winthrop's City on a Hill. More like what might occur in police-state capitals such as Managua, Sofia or Santiago. Little wonder we are the objects of wonder or ridicule around the world by people who simply cannot understand how a news organization can afford to fly six reporters a thousand miles to hide in a candidate's bushes and peek in his windows and cannot send one reporter to the White House to ask the president why he let 250 young marines lose their lives in a barracks in Beirut.
Who's questioning the character of a State Department official who lies to Congress? Or a White House staffer who shreds papers while Justice Department officials wait next door? What about the character of an administration riddled with people who blithly abuse the public trust and get away with it?
Could the very simple human response be that we all find sex more interesting than sound government? Could it be we have confused what's interesting and pruriently exciting with what's important. Could it be we've come to the new point in our history where we entrance ourselves with our leaders' personal lives because we either cannot or will not explore their ideas, their policies, or their vision.
I quote again Ms. Tuchman:
"The passionate interest the Gary Hart episode aroused in the public, contrasted with the flaccid reaction to lost lives and broken laws, illustrates the shallowness and frivolity of public opinion. If the American people do not grow angry when their son's lives are sacrificed to official negligence, or when statutes are casually violated by the caretakers of the nation's security, one cannot expect any change to a steadier government that commands more respect. Anger when anger is due is necessary for self respect and for the respect of our nation by others."
Serious people now believe we have put image over substance in our choice of government officers. By our demand for simple answers, we have triviatized ideas, policies and serious debate. By our elevation of political technique, we have trivialized the process for selecting our leaders. By our acceptance of a cult of personality, we have trivialized the true meaning of character.
A process may be judged by its system of rewards. Our process today rewards simple solutions, media manipulators, political consultants, maleable personalities, and candidates who are neither controversial nor complex. You must decide for yourself whether such a process and system of rewards is designed to produce superior leaders -- the Roosevelts, Churchills and DeGaulles of the future.
My fear is that things are going to get worse, not better. There is no privacy -- for anyone. And the new rule is that all information -- however obtained -- is relevant. And, given modern technology, all can be learned.
But, you will naturally ask, if someone has nothing to hide, why should they mind. Part of the answer is self-evident. No one enjoys being spied upon, particularly as a condition for holding public office. But consider the rest of the answer. Rumor and gossip have become the coins of the political realm. When rumor is treated as legitmate news, it not only leads to suspicion but also can be rationalized as authority for surveillance -- or spying. Spying, done well or poorly, can produce bits of information, innocent or otherwise. information thus produced can lead to the threat of publication -- an usubtle form of blackmail -- or actual publication and the destruction of a candidacy.
The issue isn't whether a candidate has something to hide. The issue is one of self-respect and the self-evident value of privacy. Take that away and we'll have not only bite-sized policies, we'll have pint-sized leaders.
Former senator Gary Hart re-entered the Democratic presidential race last week. This article is adapted from an address he delivered at Yale University on Nov. 11.