I don't know about anyone else, but my senses and emotional circuits are suffering from drastic overload. The scenes and sentiments of the last 10 days have made it nearly impossible to focus one's judgment or write with a degree of detachment and perspective -- which is what I get paid to do.
There may be a time when it is possible to say something sensible about the lessons of the 444 days of America's captivity by Iran, to assess the future of our relations with that country or to analyze why this society and 52 of its citizens were held thrall for so long. There may also come a time when something pertinent can be written about the opening days of the Reagan administration. But I am not at that point now.
My head -- like yours -- is swimming in the vivid images of the hostages' release and homecoming, overlaid on the pageantry of the change of governments.
It has been a time in which the Super Bowl -- the apotheosis of overpromoted sports spectacles -- has been outdistanced by events in the real world, or at least the television rendition of those events. We have seen history unfolding through the camera lens in that special way -- of instant replays laid atop each other -- that fills the consciousness with a montage of dramatically intense scenes and almost obliterates understanding.
There's a problem in this kind of perception that is perhaps more fundamental for our form of government than we realize. As Garry Wills points out in his new book on the Federalist Papers, the men who devised the American Constitution were wise enough to see that the expansion of the republic to continental dimensions might, by itself, serve to distill the baser claims of selfish men and permit the national interest to prevail.
But no one has been wise enough as yet to define how the shrinkage of the whole world to the dimensions of a television screen can be made compatible with the workings of a representative government.
Because television brings each of us into such intimate contact with the figures, the forces and the events of the world, there is a powerful impulse to translate our individual reactions directly into the policy decisions of the government. But this impulse to participatory, plebiscitary democrarcy is fundamentally at odds with the concept of the representative republic we are.
It is no accident that in the television age, all of the intermediary institutions created to distill mass attitudes into policy -- the political parties, Congress, the presidency -- have fallen into disrepair and disrepute.And it is certainly no accident that in the full flowering of this television era, the president of the United States is a benign television host and actor -- a sort of Walter Cronkite with opinions.
The best television new show I know -- Cbs' "Sunday Morning" with Charles Kuralt -- tries to deal with this quandary. The program's producers try to put the "events" the TV news cameras have recorded that week into perspective, by setting them in a framework of the arts and nature -- leaving long moments of silence, in which you are invited to reflect on what you have seen.
But even in this delberate effort to acheive perspective in a medium designed for immediacy, there is an inescapable paradox. Last Sunday, Richard Threlkeld went to Dubuque, Iowa, to view the hostage-inaugural week through the eyes of its people. The "establishing shot" for the sensitive segment showed the oath-taking being watched by townspeople on a row of television screens. Their reactions emerged in the interviews that followed.
The irony was that despite the serious effort to distill the human response, for the viewer this was just triple-level electronic gimmickry: a television picture of people watching a television picture of a real event. Once the nation -- and world -- are wired, it is almost impossible to unwire them.
Jeff Greenfield, the commentator on "Sunday Morning," asked the right question: how do you separate our emotions at the scenes of the hostages' return from our judgment as citizens about future American relations with Iran?
He did not offer an answer, and I don't have one either. But the challenge is there -- as ubiquitous as television itself. o