The lady from London Weekend Television was far more direct than her American cousins in the opinion-packaging business. "We have two or three points we would like you to make about the war. Can I run over them with you?"
How to resist such a bold, cutting-through-it-all question, especially when asked by Fiona MacIntosh, as melodious of voice as of name? I could not and did not. I allowed Fiona to take me deeper into the front lines of the opinion wars here in omphalos on the Potomac, the navel-gazing center of the world.
National Public Radio's lady also called, showing flashes of Fiona's candor. NPR's now withdrawn invitation to be on a war talk show had presumed, she said, that I would fill the "hard-liner" slot on a four-person panel. But her tone and hesitations indicated that my not making myself available for a pre-interview interview, and insufficient hard-lining in a recent column had destroyed my chances at NPR. (Sigh, I sighed.)
The Persian Gulf War is still for most Americans a journalistic phenomenon even though hard news is scarce and controlled. The opinion business, which has grown and changed dramatically in America, is laboring overtime to fill that void. How well the guesstimate business is serving the American people is increasingly a topic worth exploring.
Opinion on war and peace is ladled out not only along conservative and liberal lines but also according to criteria of gender, race and political affiliation. In the land of the pre-interview interview, it matters less what you know than what point on a predetermined spectrum of opinion you are willing to occupy.
In the search for the lively and entertaining, complex issues are fragmented and trivialized in the name of "diversity" of opinion. Truth (and higher ratings) will presumably emerge from the clash of viewpoints stuffed into neat pigeonholes. Everyone, including Saddam Hussein and his apologists, have their side of the story to tell. They are given the chance to tell it on the same basis as the people they invade, slaughter or threaten. Thus television's marketplace of ideas.
To be fair to Fiona MacIntosh, I should add that London Weekend Television's approach is different. It wants one story, not a mixture. Its cleverly disguised pre-interview interview had elicited several commonplaces about the war from my own lips that fit the story line they were using. There was no pretense that they were interested in a range of opinion or anything else I might have to say about the world. Make our point and get off camera was Fiona's ultimate message.
We are not likely to learn a lot more about Saddam from the current frenzy of similar prime-time opining in America. We do learn about ourselves, however. The French responded to the outbreak of war by panic food shopping, clearing the shelves before any incoming Scuds wiped out the Beaujolais supply. Americans have shown a different national reflex -- churning out opinion polls that tell us what to think about what we think.
The polls provide a remarkable reflection of the fragmentation of American opinion. War is the ultimate expression of the national vocation we share as a people. But the polls validate the notion that there is a separate black viewpoint on the war, a separate female point of view and so on, as if the nation was one big NPR talk show. Group interests eclipse national interest in these sectional samplings. Yuppie, gay and redneck polls on Desert Storm are undoubtedly in the works.
With the Persian Gulf War, the Information Age arrives on the battlefield. Smart weapons, real-time electronic reporting of missile attacks and Nintendo-like film from bombing runs all provide an electronic simulation of war and information. The New York Times yesterday made a front-page fact out of a veteran reporter's astonishment that he had talked by telephone to his editors from Saudi Arabia as often in one day of Gulf war as he did in three years in Vietnam.
This is what Thucydides has come to. And what von Clausewitz was to strategy and Sun Tsu was to tactics in other eras, Dick Cheney may be to electronic warfare. Cheney appears to be consciously applying the art of media "low balling" to the art of war.
Low balling is the technique of deliberately deflating expectations so that even a modest final result resembles victory. Candidate X persuades the reporters that he will get 10 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. When he gets 20, the reporters hail X as genius and victor.
This at least is how I understand Cheney's decisions to let the uninformed predictions of 10,000 American casualties float in the air without contradiction, his orders to aides to clamp down on the "euphoria thing" and his saying on television Monday that the war could last "months." Exceeding expectations is a predictable war aim for the post-Vietnam Pentagon brass.
A war, as much as George Bush or Saddam Hussein, has its own image. It has its own agents of perception and persuasion who record it as effective and virtuous or messy and futile. All of us, and the opinions we hold and announce, are the products of our dreams as well as our experiences, our wishes as well as our knowledge. Readers and viewers will do well to keep that humble caveat in mind as the opinion wars escalate.