This is a bleary-eyed report from the ozone zone -- the upper reaches of the political atmosphere where an American election campaign is reduced to its most basic element: television signals.
More precisely, it is a report on a 17-hour day spent in front of four television sets in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, a day devoted to discovering how a primary election actually looks on television if one is willing to look at everything broadcast in a single "media market."
A survivor of this experience gets the feeling that he may have been somewhere no one else has been before, to a McLuhanesque nether world that a glib Englishman might call Wits End.It was a crazy journey, but enormously instructive.
A full day of television involved a lot that is stranger than politics, though there was an awful lot of strange politics, too. For example, someone who spends his days in an office isn't adequately prepared for the latest fashions in soap operas -- writhing bodies barely hidden under bed-sheets, and so forth. "Search for Tomorrow" is offering a lot more excitement than most of this years' political campaigning.
Whatever its broad appeal, politics has been unavoidable for television viewers in Pittsburgh for weeks. Last Thursday Pittsburgh stations broadcast at least 60 commercials for candidates of all shapes and sizes -- candidates for the Senate, the U.S. House and Senate, the presidency of the United States.
This was good news primarily for the TV stations' advertising departments.
Viewers could not have been much elevated by back-to-back ads for Arlene Specter and Pete Flaherty, the leading candidates for the vacant U.S. Senate seat who are both well known principally because they have both lost so many previous elections. The day brought a succession of earnest men, most of them with jackets slung over their shoulders, all promising a better tomorrow.
Besides the ads, the most important source of televised political information is the news, and not just the news of the campaign, either. On Thursday the newscasts were filled with gloomy economic reports -- further downturns in the housing industry, massive new layoffs in the automobile industry. Auto layoffs mean less steel will be needed from Pittsburgh, and that is bigger news here than anything a mere candidate can say.
Television news reports are usually loaded; the medium seems inexorably drawn away from neutrality. A correspondent with 60 or 90 seconds to summerize a day's campaigning by one of the candidates looks for some sweeping generalization to sum it all up. Either it was a good day or a bad one; the candidate is doing well, or doing poorly.
But these are small-scale generalizations. Curiously, the fact that Ronald Reagan is doing well does not necessarily mean that George Bush is doing badly. On television here Thursday, in fact, both of them were doing well. So were Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and President Carter.
But Bush, Reagan and Kennedy were all doing well in a very different way than Carter. On television Thursday, Carter got presidential treatment; the rest were treated like politicians.
No correspondent and no anchorman suggested that Carter's day -- that is; his news conference -- was comparable to Reagan's visit to Philadelphia's Italian Market, or Kennedy's appearance before steelworkers in Pittsburgh. But of course they were comparable -- at least Reagan and Kennedy hoped they were.
The way the campaign looked on the TV news, no one was doing badly on Thursday. On the networks' morning news programs (Thursday Morning on CBS, Today on NBC, Good Morning America on ABC), Reagan, Bush and Kennedy all benefited from upbeat reports. Reagan was a smiling, funny "front-runner." Bush was described as "exuberant" and he was pictured as the happy beneficiary of enthusiastic receptions from crowds of Pennsylvania.
In NBC's report on Kennedy during the first segment of the Today show, correspondent Bob Kur opened like this:
"Aides called it a good day as Kennedy traveled from one end of Pennsylvania to the other. Kennedy called it a perfect day -- genuinely enthusiastic, big crowds . . ."
Then Kur slipped in a zinger. The biggest crowd of the day, he reported, was in Wilkes-Barre:
"Wilkes-Barre is near where Mary Jo Kopechne, who died at Chappaquiddick, is buried. But even here, a local poll shows Kennedy ahead of the president, and Kennedy aides believe enough Democrats finally seem willing to overlook the personal issue. . . ."
What was that? It brought a viewer up short, Seventeen hours later, that had been the only mention of "the personal issue" on any news program all day. Kur of NBC had exploited a geographic coincidence to bring up Kennedy's personal morality. Well, if nothing else, this was a blessing to Gerald Rafshoon, the advertising man who is making commercials for Carter.
Rafshoon's strategy in Pennsylvania is not to promote perceived qualities in Carter (which he has done successfully in commericials used in earlier primaries), but to emphasize Kennedy's "negatives."
By 10:35 in the morning, viewers of the game show "Whew!" on KDKA-TV, the CBS outlet, had seen the first of some 10 Carter commercials shown during the day, all of them repeats of two anti-Kennedy messages.
The Rafshoon commercials featured people-on-the-street speaking ill of Kennedy in quick snippets of filmed interviews.
"I don't think Kennedy is qualified to be President," says one figure. "I don't believe him," says another. "I don't trust him," adds a third. "You're taking a chance with Kennedy," says a fourth, summarizing the case Rafshoon is trying to make.
These ads created the most jarring irony of the day. They seemed small-minded, almost mean, and distinctly unpresidential. This was, after all, the president of the United States speaking -- not in his own words, of course, but still, he was using his own time and money not to promote himself, but to run down his intraparty opponent.
This message was sharply at odds with the presidential image Carter conveyed all day on the news programs, thanks to his news conference, which was carried live by all three netwoks at 4 p.m.
But the big payoff for Carter came at 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on the network news. On ABC and NBC particularly, the news conference was reported -- at great length -- almost reverent tones. An unknowing viewer might have concluded that the Iranian crisis began about a week ago and that Carter was moving briskly and forcefully to deal with it. CBS treated the news conference more skeptically, devoting more time to the history of the crisis over the last five months.
But in all likelihood, more voters in Pittsburgh saw those anti-Kennedy Carter ads, which appeared several times in prime time, including once on the hyper-popular "Mork & Mindy," than saw the press conference or news accounts of it.
The net effect of that jarring contrast cannot be measured.
There was another irony Thursday worth recording: The Carter camp was not the only one that thought "the personal issue" was important to Kennedy. The Kennedy camp did, too. It popped up in two Kennedy ads that appeared at least half a dozen times throughout the day, ads featuring Carroll O'Connor, the actor made famous as Archie Bunker.
After predicting in one ad that "Jimmy's depression is going to be worse than Herbert's" (that is, Herbert Hoover's), O'Connor looks solemnly into the camera and says: "I trust Ted Kennedy. I believe in him. In every way, folks."
In every way? What does that mean? Apparently, it means that Carroll O'Connor believes in Ted Kennedy's personal morality as well as his economic policies. Such is the profundity of the dialogue in political advertising.
The ad men insist that 30- and 60-second spots provide genuine communication between candidate and voters, and they are partly right. Those Carter ads do sharply remind people that Kennedy is a controversial figure. The Kennedy ads raise the still-credible spectre of depression in Pittsburgh, and O'Connor-Bunker is an effective pitchman.
But longer interviews of the candidates conducted by local newscasters provided much more useful information for voters. Bush had the best of this Thursday, appearing at length on two local shows.
Here, at last, one could see the candidate in a setting beyond his total control. The viewer can take the measure of the man, assess his body language and his manner, and also hear more than the pre-programmed pap of a political campaign.
On "Pittsburgh-2-Day," a variety interview program on KDKA-TV at 2 p.m., Bush was asked what had attracted him to his wife Barbara when they first met as 18-year-olds.
"Hey, listen," the candidate replied, "I'm a normal guy. . . . ." And what did Barbara see in him? "Hey, listen, I'm no good on this psychoanalysis stuff," Bush said.
The most revealing glimpse of the way television looks at politics came at the end of that same interview program. The woman host of the show was reviewing the day's events just before sign-off, when she offered an apology to her audience.
You may have noticed, she said, that we've had a lot of presidential candidates on the show lately. I hope you realize, she said, that we have to have them all -- the equal time regulations require it.
There have been a lot of these politicians on lately, the male co-host of the show agreed. And wasn't it interesting, he added: "Everybody starts to sound the same, don't they?"