Gerald Rafshoon, the president's professional image-maker, spent his time in an aluminum trailer in Madison Square Garden tonight, watching television.
Greg Schneiders, Dale Leibach and other Rafshoon assistants were there, keeping detailed scorecards. When the networks offered up to their vast audiences a pro-Kennedy or anti Carter interview, the Rafshoon operation responded. They sent onto the floor or up to the network booths Cabinet officers like Patricia Roberts Harris, friendly congressmen and friendly governors to get equal time.
The Carter people left nothing to chance. They believed correctly that Edward Kennedy was beaten and that the real adversary is television. They want America to come away from this convention with a good opinion of Jimmy Carter and with an image of a strong and united Democratic Party.
Left to their own devices, the Carter strategists believe, the networks will not project those images. They will be "negative," they will focus on dissent and disarray and thus frustrate Rafshoon's purposes. The net works are driven to this "negative" coverage, the Carter people think, by their fierce competition for audience shares, but their need to create drama where none exists.
The answer to this problem, Carter's people concluded, is to limit the ability of the network news organizations to "write the script" for the convention.
Tonight's objective, in the words of one Carter official, was to "cut down on the time these network people have for editorializing and analyzing. We're perfectly willing to have the networks televise the proceedings. But why should the audience have to be told by Walter Cronkite what it all means? Let the delegates do that."
To achieve that end, the Carter people and, obviously, the Kennedy people, too, supplied their own "commenators" in the person of friendly politicians eager and willing to get air time. This is not an idle exercise, for television, positive or negative, ina dominant influence on political opinion.
"If anybody on the floor is talking to a reporter against us," said a Carter official, "we'll get someone down there to give our side."
That Tv strategy seemed to work during the opening showdown on rules, giving the network coverage the quality of a tennis match. Hamilton Jordan showed up to speak for Carter. Jack English, a Long Island political figure, responded for Kennedy. Chip arter made a pitch for his father. He was followed on camera by a Kennedy man, Pat Lucey of Wisconsin.
Back and forth the cameras went to a procession of talking heads. The impression left was of a rigorous dedication to the equal time concept.
Immediately after the routine and unsurprising roll call on the delegate rule tonight, Sam Donaldson of ABC put on camera two delegates wearing black armbands who bemoaned the "end of democracy in the Democratic Party."
Ever alert. Rafshoon and his colleagues produced in quick succession campaign chairman Robert Strauss, presidential press secretary Jody Powell and presidential assistant Anne Wexler to praise the victory of the democracy in the Democratic Party. Their fears of a prime-time debacle had not been realized.
This give-and-take is consistent with the philosophy of William Small, the president of NBC news.
He bluntly rejects the Carterite theory that competition between the networks distorts the coverage or creates false images of conflict and disarray.
"Politicians," he says, "have always wanted to manage and manipulate the press. There is no surprise in that. What the Carter people want, of course, is to look good here and they look on us and on you [newspapers] as problems. They see it as a problem when we give these other people time. But this is not one political party -- a Carter party. It is a lot of parties. The Kennedy people have a right to be heard. There are many interest groups here -- minorities, unions, pro-life, ERA and many others. They have a right too, to try to manipulate us and to be heard."
He sees his network as an educational force giving the American people out of this convention an extended lesson in civics -- airing platform debates, rules debates and so on.
"The Carter people would love it if we did none of that," says Small. "Of course the Kennedy people love it when we do."
But there was a suggestion out of the Carter camp today that Small is a special problem here. They claim he was angry and jealous because President Carter gave an exclusive interview to CBS for use Sunday night. And they also claim that Small promised "to get even."
Small denies that. He said he had a very "acrimonious" conversation about the Carter interview with presidential press secretary Jody Powell. "But," he says, "there was no talk of getting even. That sounds like Georgia talk. It is not NBC talk."
Abc has its own view of all this which is illustrated by the fact that it turned down a Carter interview at midday Sunday on grounds that the time was inappropriate.
"If we gave this convention what it's worth and what it deserves," said David Burke, "we'd have a one hour wrapup every night and none of this gavel-to-gavel coverage." Burke is an ABC news vice president and a former political assistant to Edward Kennedy and to Gov. Hugh Carey of New York.
"I don't sense any manipulation from the Carter people or the Kennedy people or that they are putting any pressures on us" Burke said today. "Television is a fact of life and the parties know that. They adapt to us. This debate on rules and on the platform was scheduled by them for 'prime time' They made them prime-time events and they even use our jargon now.
"But there is far more manipulation in a presidential press conference called at 7 a.m. before the Wisconsin primary than you find here. Of course they call us up here and offer us guests but that's our decision. We were going to have Carter on 'Issues and Answers' Sunday but we called that off."
The real problem, in Burke's view, is that the kind of television coverage being given to the conventions of 1980 is outmoded. It's a formula, he says, invented years ago when there was an element of suspense in the conventions, when the delegates could make real decisions. Now that candidates are chosen in primaries, a convention becomes little more than a coronation and there is little public interest in them.
Passage of the loyalty rule, he said means that "all this convention will deserve the rest of the week is a one-hour summary every night at 10 o'clock."
He predicts that by 1984 or 1988 at the latest conventions will be seen for what they are -- "gatherings of groupies."
And he disagrees with Small's concept of coverages as a "civics lesson."
"What kind of a civics lesson do you get out of people debating platform planks they don't understand or getting to make speeches because they are someone's brother-in-law? That's ridiculous."
Meanwhile, the $35 million network TV news coverage proceeds apace with an endless supply of performers, Carterites, Kennedyites and affiliated lobbies and interest groups They will love the exposure.
If Burke's prediction in on the mark, this may be the last great show.