On television, this week's political story came out as a three-cornered contest between the greatest performer to live in the White House in modern times, a lot of angry Democrats trying to look compassionate, and a skeptical corps of network correspondents and producers.
The winner, if there was one, wins nothing yet. As a political football game, and that seems to be the analogy Americans like best, this one is still in the first quarter.
If the yards gained by President Reagan should be measured in terms Commentary of the nation's economic health, he's still looking for his first first down. But he is looking with extraordinary eloquence.
The television tube is this president's most potent weapon, as he proved again this week. He may make mistakes in press conferences, but he gives his rare press conferences in midafternoon, to preempt the soap operas.
When it comes to prime-time speeches, we have never had a president as good as this one.
The angry Democrats seem to realize that they are up against an opponent they cannot match telegenically. Their media man, Robert Squier, made a half-hour documentary for them to respond to Reagan with a message the Democrats' pollsters think should be potent: that the Reagan program just isn't fair.
Curiously, the opinion polls show that a majority of Americans agree that the Reagan program favors the rich and not them. But they like Reagan anyway, which is the heart of the Democrats' political problem.
The Democrats' other problem is their inability to state a clear alternative to the Reagan program. Squier's half-hour show was a compendium of talking congressmen and talking Americans bemoaning the President's unfairness, but they had no substitute for the administration's approach.
Arguably, they won't need one, if the economy doesn't get better, but for now the Squier show seemed inadequate to the Democrats' task.
The most effective Democratic comment was probably former vice president Walter F. Mondale's on the CBS "Morning" program Wednesday. Perhaps it is Democratic luck that this is the least-watched network news program in the country.
Mondale, who has had trouble finding a voice in the first year of the Reagan presidency, said that he was "just angry" that the president was ignoring nearly 10 million unemployed and trumpeting a "New Federalism" that did nothing to solve the current economic crisis. Mondale looked angry and worried, and also compassionate.
In the longer run, the Democrats may benefit more from the tenor of the network news shows than from their own efforts. Television news has adopted an increasingly skeptical attitude toward the Reagan economic program, as any viewer had to notice in the past few days.
On Tuesday night, after the speech, CBS's front line of reporters all had harsh things to say about the president's speech and/or his policies.
Dan Rather said the speech--and the Democrats' film, too--could be described as "a triumph of style over substance." Bob Schieffer asked of Reagan's New Federalism: "What does that have to do with $100 billion deficits?" Bill Moyers emphasized that Reagan's speech offered nothing new to cope with a serious economic situation.
At the White House, officials made no effort to hide their hope that Reagan's dramatic call for a New Federalism would distract national attention from the current deep recession.
"He has opened up the China-India-Burma theater," one official said with a grin. But the three networks' evening news programs Wednesday indicated that this ploy was not going to succeed.
On NBC, for example, the first half of the "Nightly News" was devoted to stories about both the New Federalism and then the state of the economy, five separate reports that were all dubious about Reagan's prospects for success.
On ABC's "World News Tonight," congressional correspondent Brit Hume ended his report by saying: "As for the New Federalism, nobody here in the Capitol seems excited about it either way."
Unlike the others, the CBS "Evening News" skipped over the state of the economy, but all its reports on New Federalism suggested that it wasn't going anywhere. Moyers said so directly in his commentary.
Then Ronald Reagan's famous luck returned. Last night the network news shows were hardly interested in deficits, unemployment or federalism. Last night the story was the release of Brig. Gen. James Dozier by the Italian police.
Soon, you can bet, Gen. Dozier will be joining Lenny Skutnik in Ronald Reagan's gallery of American heroes.