MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Paul Simon has written 11 books, including a study of Abraham Lincoln's record as an Illinois legislator. Yet on the Saturday before the New Hampshire primary this literate man called a news conference to introduce his new commercial, staged the buying of Valentine's Day roses for his wife, kissed her three times (once for each network?) and then walked down the street to barge into Mike Dukakis' campaign headquarters.
Presidential candidates nowadays have nothing on Richard III. He offered his kingdom for a horse. They swap their pride for a sound bite.
Click! You could almost hear the sound all over New Hampshire: Click. It's the sound of television remote control devices running through the channels. Richard Gephardt, first in Iowa, second here. Click. George Bush, third in Iowa, first in New Hampshire. Click. Paul Simon, Bruce Babbitt, Jack Kemp, Pete du Pont, Pat Robertson, Mike Dukakis. Click, click, click and click.
This is the Couch Potato campaign. A bored and somewhat alienated electorate sits at home and watches the presidential campaign as if it were just another television show. The pace can be furious and the debate -- for all the many formal ones -- is really conducted via paid commercials. Gephardt wins in Iowa and almost immediately Simon counters here with a commercial charging Gephardt with being inconsistent on the issues. Gephardt then tools up one of his own to rebut Simon. Bush attacks Dole in a last-minute ad campaign that cannot be answered in time. Democracy's discourse has been reduced to the fleeting images of television commercials.
The dominance of television advertising is not unique to this campaign. But its importance has been enhanced by the absence of cutting issues and the relative blandness of the campaign. The premium therefore is on image. George Bush, for instance, can spend more than a year campaigning by limo and then suddenly appear behind the wheel of a monster truck. Is that the real George Bush and if so where has he been all this time?
The Southern Strategy candidate, Albert Gore Jr., says he did not campaign here. He has disdain for Iowa and New Hampshire as unrepresentative of the nation. Yet, on the same day that Gore was indeed in the South, he spoke to me through my car radio here -- a commercial. He is the model of the contemporary candidate. His campaign exists almost entirely in the ether.
In the hierarchy of fools, journalists must be at the top and the subcategory of columnists even higher. The presumption is you go to where the story is -- in this case, New Hampshire. But the campaign no longer takes place on the ground. To accompany a candidate, especially this year, is only to be an extra in a photo opportunity. The crow's nest for the political spotter is the motel room couch placed in front of the television set. There you see the real campaign, the one being waged on television -- the commercials and countercommercials and the sound bites that make the news.
Lamenting the influence of television and advertising in presidential politics is like spitting in the ocean. They are facts of life. But that hardly means that their effect is not pernicious. The impact of a commercial can be immediately measured by an overnight tracking poll. The spot is then retained, modified or junked. Opposing candidates respond in kind, reacting as swiftly as they can. As Election Day approaches, a strategy, a tactic -- a position -- either instantly works or does not. There is no waiting. There is, therefore, little leadership -- scant time to stake out a position and persuade the electorate.
This year, particularly, a journalist has the sense that to be with the campaign is not to be with the campaign -- that what really matters is happening elsewhere. That's not to say that it's worthless to interview voters, to watch their reaction to a live speech and to attend rallies. The Robertson "surprise" in Iowa was no such thing to reporters who went to his rallies. But Bush's resurgence here happened almost entirely on television.
On election night, Tom Brokaw of NBC was interviewing Bush, with Dole waiting in the electronic wings. Brokaw asked Dole if he had anything to say to the vice president. "Stop lying about my record," Dole snapped, referring to Bush's commercials. Brokaw seemed surprised, but Bush smiled triumphantly. Dole had broken a rule. Doesn't he know that he's supposed to respond to a commercial with a commercial, not uncanned emotion?