GEORGE BUSH probably wishes he were running against Dan Rather for president, but, worse luck for him, he isn't. Yes, we know: there are a couple of senses, anyway, in which it can be said that Mr. Bush and all the candidates are running against Dan Rather -- or the media for which Mr. Rather has become, over the years, so contentious a symbol. One is in the sense of having continually to contend with a disobliging, disruptive presence, that of the eternal journalistic troublemaker who is ever eager to bring up the flaws in your performance, the contradictions in your position, the sag you are experiencing in the polls; there is what your opponent gets on you, in other words, and what the media gets on you. The other sense in which Mr. Bush and the rest are running against the media is that of capitalizing on the public's fed-upness with the press -- its pushy ways, its occasional dirty pool and its generally enormous power.
So in these respects, at least, you could say the vice president's presumed wish came true on Monday night. Dan Rather was the opponent, and in the election that ensued Mr. Bush beat him. Anyone who sits within 50 feet of a telephone on which citizens call in to express their views will tell you that. It is interesting: one day, in this country, we are bemoaning TV anchormen as empty-headed prettyboys -- Ted Baxters and Tom Grunicks -- telegenic ciphers. The next, we are complaining that they are know-it-alls, meddlers, second-guessers, too aggressive for their own good.
What about each man's actual performance? We can imagine others on the political scene polishing off Mr. Rather in that situation much more decisively than the vice president did. We're not referring here to the substance of the argument, which is important but whose details were hopelessly lost to viewers in the broadcast turmoil. (As Herblock so economically points out, this morning, the vice president -- the "champ" -- still does have a rather major problem on that score.) We're referring to Mr. Bush's outraged, combative defense against what he took to be an unfair assault from his interviewer and his refusal to be intimidated by Mr. Rather. It prevailed, but it needed more sock, more self-assurance and less complaint.
Mr. Rather was much too argumentative and hot and seemingly personally engaged. He appeared determined to make points at almost any cost and unable to stand back at all, even when it had become plain that his line of attack was not going to elicit any information. We don't know what the terms of the arrangement were, but if CBS did mislead Mr. Bush and trick him into appearing, then it did a sleazy thing. The interview opened with the journalistic equivalent of a spray of machine-gun fire. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that its proposed target fought back, and the press will rightly get no sympathy whatever if, picking a fight, it whines about the impropriety of politicians responding in kind. But whatever Dan Rather did wrong, don't fault him for not being the "Broadcast News" anchor. The area of questioning was legitimate. The notable thing about Mr. Bush's victory was that it did not come as a result of dispatching those questions, only the questioner.