Anwar Sadat may have been something of a mystic, a man who spoke of himself as being the spiritual descendant of the pharaohs, the heir to 7,000 years of Egyptian history, but he was also preeminently a creature of the age of television.
He strode into history three years ago next month, when he dramatically announced that he would go to Jerusalem in the cause of peace. No modern Arab leader had ever done this, and the world watched that dramatic moment, live and in color, through the eye of the TV camera. From then on he was cast in celebrity status as world statesman and seeker of peace. It was a role he assiduously sought, and shrewdly exploited.
Sadat understood television better than most leaders do, and he was singularly effective in using it to his own advantage. He was forever granting "exclusive" interviews with the dominant figures of American TV journalism, as well as making innumerable appearances on the TV news panel shows. He became one of the superstars of the medium.
Americans came to feel that they knew him as they did few other major public figures in recent times. In the tragic end, of course, they shared intimately in the horror of his death, just as they have become participants in the awful scenes of so many other slain leaders during this last bloody generation that marks the age of television.
Appropriately, the most moving of the countless tributes to him came from his words, as recorded and captured by television, and, fittingly, during an interview with Walter Cronkite.
Millions watched as Cronkite, the king of American TV, was shown strolling along the Nile, Sadat at his side. They listened as the Egyptian spoke about the cradle of civilization and his belief that while the body perishes the soul lives on and is immortal.
It was memorable television, poignant and inspiring, and it helps explain why Sadat held so powerful a grip on people in this country.
But the emotional scenes we've just witnessed as portrayals of the life and death of Anwar Sadat carry another message. They are reminders of how television has become so inextricably a part of the modern exercise of power.
And they show how television intensifies, and distorts, the influence of personality in public life.
For better or worse, in this, too, Anwar Sadat provides one of the best examples.
Early in this century Lord Salisbury offered a definition of effective diplomacy.
"The victories of diplomacy," he said, "are won by a series of microscopic advantages--a judicious suggestion here, an opportune civility there, a wise concession at one moment and a farsighted persistence at another--of sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake."
Those elements remain as valid now as they were then, and are probably even more so, given the extraordinarily volatile mixture of international politics and worldwide change.
Yet increasingly flamboyant personality seems to have replaced the quiet art of diplomacy. We focus on the style of the leaders, their personal traits, their methods of delivery, their humor and wit, their supposed uniqueness, at the expense of the substance of issues and how they choose to deal with them. In the process, we elevate them into something they are not.
Through constant exposure to them, in our living rooms, they emerge as irreplaceable players on the world stage. Their sudden loss thus hits the public with all the more shattering force. The more of them we lose, the more bereft of great leadership we believe the world to be, and the more hopeless conditions appear.
That was the case with both John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, and now with the latest casualty, Sadat.
Sadat's death underscores another problem with the political cult of personality, one now sadly familiar to Americans. It involves the false illusions created by heightened public expectations.
The danger lies in the belief that some sudden and dramatic breakthrough has been achieved by a miracle worker of a leader.
Thus, all the hopeful talk about the "spirit of Glassboro" as heralding a new era of peaceful relations with the Soviets during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency.
Thus, the similar evoking of the "spirit of Camp David" as signaling the dawn of peace after thousands of years of bloodshed in the Middle East during Jimmy Carter's.
Thus, too, the soaring of hopes when Sadat went to Jerusalem.
In all of these dramas of such highly charged personal encounters, there lies the risk of diplomatic danger. Dashing of hopes after great expectations makes any failures assume even greater proportions.
When that happens, the greatest disservice of all has occurred.
As the world mourns Anwar Sadat today, let him be remembered not so much for his special individual gifts, however memorable his personality and appealing his style. His greatest legacy stems from something far more encompassing and precious. It is his universality, not his individuality, that counts most.
As Sadat said in that memorable interview with Cronkite, ideas and principles are what are important. They always live on long after the person who holds and expresses them has gone. And they never stand alone.