Pity the poor press. One of the things we do most and worst is to cover negotiations. We have to write about them. They generally are where the action is in any big story. But there are a lot of reasons why this exercise is foredoomed to failure. By failure, I mean that our accounts become unreadable, that we are manipulated within an inch of our professional lives either by being closed out or dealt in in a partial way, and that by the time the negotiation is all over, we tend to have lost completely our analytic grip on what it was about -- what was interesting and important about it -- in the first place. Since in talking about journalism I am, in effect, talking about the way we all communicate with each other -- the national mode of chitchat -- what is really at issue is a kind of literal but false perception of the world around us.
The Lebanon war is obviously the most pressing example, and I will get to it in a minute. But a word is in order first about the whole protracted Reagan versus O'Neill and/or Domenici and/or Dole and/or Jim Jones and/or Jack Kemp saga of 1981 and '82. I'll wager my prospective 1983 tax cut on the following proposition: that although we have written miles and miles of copy concerning the basic budget-cum-tax-bills struggle that has been going on in the capital since just about the first day Ronald Reagan got here, you cannot remember a single thing about those negotiations. This one says that he won't buy the increase (or decrease). That one refuses to go along with the inclusion of everything over (or under) the billion-and-a-half-dollar figure from the last resolution. (Which resolution was it again? And what is a "resolution," anyway?) Volcker predicts, Reagan rejects, O'Neill condemns, Baker supports, Rostenkowski suggests and so on. Can anyone recall, except for 15 minutes ago, precisely and specifically what any of this predicting and rejecting concerned?
It's nothing new. I remember the old days on Capitol Hill when the jousting over the foreign aid bill every year read exactly like this and when every elevator boy in the building could tell you, as of the past half hour, just where Otto Passman, the committee chairman in charge of the annual debacle, had fetched up now: "Passman says $3.6 billion." "Passman's threatening to go down to $2.8 if they don't take this." And surely it's not just this decade's money stories, but also its foreign conflicts -- e.g., Lebanon and many crises before it, not to mention arms negotiations -- that have fallen victim to this traditional kind of interpretation.
Only consider the past several weeks and what you have learned of the efforts of this country and other countries, along with the participants in the Lebanese war, to bring hostilities to an end. There have been the semi-secret shuttlings and beseechings of Philip Habib. There have been the sometimes announced, more often leaked, accounts by this party and that concerning who was offering what and on what terms. The Israelis wanted one thing, the PLO was holding out for another, the Syrians would or wouldn't take some number of men. They would have to go before or after or during something else. These things are reported and dwelt on because they are very important at the moment. But they are also mind-numbing and distracting and, paradoxically, somehow trivializing as well of the very serious actions and decisions they may describe.
There is more. Since press accounts of what is going on in any center-stage negotiation are important in themselves -- in fact, their impact becomes part of the negotiation, unfortunately -- it is certain that all sides will try to get us to help, and this will inevitably lead to distortions. The British government cooked press stories shamelessly in order to deceive the Argentine enemy in the Falklands fighting. Others will do the same to strengthen their bargaining positions: "Arafat Says He Will Never Accept Terms; Talks in Danger of Collapsing." This -- strategically used disinformation -- plus the secrecy that negotiators understandably find essential much of the time, combine to skew hopelessly what was already a very difficult and unrewarding journalistic enterprise.
What finally happens is that we mire down. We lose sight entirely of what the process is about. Democratic national conventions are, for some reason, a favorite setting for this. I think ruefully of our preoccupation, for example, at the Democratic convention of 1968 with the personal minutiae of a negotiation that we really didn't even notice (until four years later) was resulting in a momentous civil rights breakthrough for the party; and similarly at the surreal convention of 1972, in our fascination with the ups and downs of the precise caucus votes, we didn't notice that what they were voting on represented, on the TV screen, something akin to a political freak show and party calamity.
And so too now. The shared and agreed-to goal of the Lebanese negotiations is as momentous as it is eccentric and historically resonant. This negotiation over the removal of an entire army and its resettlement elsewhere, this bargaining over who gets to (or has to) go where and how many arms of what type he may carry with him and by what route, land or sea, he may exit and the rest puts one in mind of crusader armies and Byzantine emperors, of King Lear's dickering over his horsemen, of the ransoming of much of the noble youth and most of the silverware of England to get Richard the Lion-Hearted, then a hostage in Austria, set free. We are in the presence of an extraordinary historical event, one whose oddity, if only in terms of what has been mutually accepted as desirable by the parties, has gone almost unremarked, along with the sea change in assumptions about life in the MIddle East that it reflects.
All this, like the radical transformation of the government fiscal policy at home, is drowned in the details. The story gets lost in the "story." And sooner or later, having tried to do our humdrum, cameralike, uncolored, all-we-want-are-the-facts-ma'am best, we will be taxed with having missed the action, deformed its meaning and concealed from the public a cataclysmic event as it was happening. I'm beginning to think journalism isn't sensational enough.