On their last morning together in Israel, Menahem Begin and Anwar interview with one of the major American televsion network correspondents. "Prime Minister," asked NBC's John Chancellor, "do you think this is bigger than both of you?"
The previous day, ABC's Barbara Walters had the first turn. She set the scene for interview, as she put it, by stressing that "this is the very first interview that the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Israel have done - and, indeed, any president of Egypt with any prime minister. In that sense, it is historic."
Then, employing the royal "we", and without a trace of subtlety, she let us know whom we really could thank for that "unprecedented" occasion:
"We have been hoping to have this for many years, as you know. Mr. President, talked about as well with you. Mr. Prime Minister, so we are grateful to you for this historic time, the first time you and publicly appearing together for the television camera."
It was evening when CBS's Walter Cronkite sat down with the two Middle Eastern leaders. A few minutes into the interview. Begin was giving his assessment of the way the talks were going. He was optimistic:
"They were good talks," he said. "We made good progress. We understand each other better now. We understand that we should talk peace. We are resolved, as you heard, both the president and myself, not to have more wars. No more bloodshed. We want peace. Real peace. And that, perse, is a very great achievement."
So one would think. But Cronkite did not seem convinced. Didn't they feel, he asked, "that there's going to be a letdown by your people, Mr. Begin, and your people, Mr. Sadat, if you do not come back from this meeting to your people with something specific, some -"
Again, Cronkite pressed the point: "You don't think the elation will be deflated by - " A babble of voices, a mingling of accents, a show of emotion. Begin and Sadat quickly attempting to counter that impression. Begin: "No, there is no reason, we shall continue our . . ." Sadat: "There will be signs from others to try and picture the whole thing as deflated, but . . ."
I offer these, not in a carping sense, but as examples of common blemishes on some of the most memorable television coverage ever. Riveting and moving as that coverage was, the networks also gave us a certain banality, a preoccupation with being first competitively, and an obsession with simple solutions, instant appraisals, black-and-white answers: Who's ahead? What's the score? What if? It is life or death, victory or failure, war or peace? All in 10 words, please. And now, not later.
At its worst, it became a game, mass one network, ABC, in cutting back and forth from the the Middle Eastern airport arrival to a college football game in Michigan. In the end, the game prevailed; if those are the entertainment - and nothing reinforced that impression more than the actions of standards ABC employs, it will be difficult to take its efforts seriously hereafter.
As its best well, peculiarly, a celebrated expression from the Middle Ages bes captures the power of television in conveying this almost Biblical story: In the country of the blind a one-eyed man is kind, Erasmus, so long ago. These past few days have given fresh evidence of just how compellingly that eye of the camera can command our attention, and possibly alter our lives.
On Saturday, when Sadat's plane was approaching jerusalem, a colleague with long experience in diplomatic affairs was grumping about the event. "It's bad," he said, "when public relations get ahead of policy."
Similar comments, also cast in negative tones, had been made about the perils of TV diplomacy. The idea was widely expressed that, somehow TV had usurped, say, the functions of a secretary of state, or crossed the fine journalistic line between observer and participant. All of which is nonsense.
What Cronkite, Chancellor & Co. were doing was in the best journalistic tradition. They were after the story. Sure, they carried the message from participant to participant. Sure, they were aggressive in asking the questions that elecited the responses that put Begin and Sadat on public record that helped clear the way for the meeting. That was being resourceful journalistically. The problem, to me, at least, was that at times they came between us and the story - that is, between us and the brillant, single eye of the camera.
There's an old saw in the news business about good reporters instinctively avoiding writing "sob" stories and bad ones being unable to resist the temptation.The corollary is equally instructive: the greater the emotional nature of the story, the simpler is should be told.
The Begin-Sadat meeting needed no embellishment. More than any in years, it spoke for itself.
It's the view here that the events of the past days have had an impact beyond immediate reckoning. And television, certainly, has played a significant role in enhancing the power of that drama. That was its real service.
Here was a case where images, pictures, sound really were worth more than written words, where each of us could react personally to the sense of history happening before us to the tears glistening in Sadat's eyes as he stood on that airport ramp; to the glimpses of humanity in each of the leaders as they spoke about children and grandchildren and shared impression of past and present; to the solemnity, and eloquence,of words uttered byerstwhile mortal enemies: to the shrines visited and the stir of massive crowds.
Deep emotions were tapped, anclent sorrows and tragedies uncovered, cultural and religious roots from antiquity evoked. It was the Old Testament and the Koran, the Pyramids and the temple.
For me, an emotional peak came after they had visited the Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Jewish dead in the Nazi holocaust. The prosecutor at the Eichmann trial was their escort.
"I felt there was a great flame behind every word he said," Sadat remarked later.
"The ashes of millions of people," Begin said. "When you stand there, you don't think . . . You have only feelings. How did it happen? you ask . . . But it did happen. To the Jewish people."
The dangers of such emotionally charged encounters are obvious: that too may hopes are raised, carrying with them too many consequences of failure.
But this story carries another message. As Menahem Begin said to us on television, "There should always be a beginning." That spirit alone gives new reasons for hoe. It is also a cause for thanksgiving.