PARIS -- Pausing in the middle of an interview a few days ago in Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fumbled for the name of the American politician he wanted to use to illustrate a point about the media and politics. He frowned, turned to an aide and asked in Arabic, "What was the name of the fellow with Donna Rice?"
When a reasonably well informed head of state, and an American ally at that, recalls her name but not his, it is a small signal that things are out of kilter in the way the American public and the rest of the world get information about this unconventional U.S. political season.
The same signal was sent, although in a different fashion, by Monday's televised verbal brawl between Vice President George Bush and Dan Rather of CBS. Viewed in close proximity to Europe's more sedate television news programs, the Bush-Rather duel was a jarring collision between the traditions of America's rambunctious democracy and the commercial constraints of U.S. television network news.
Those constraints appear rigid when viewed from a country like France, where prime-time news broadcasts routinely run beyond their scheduled end if the day's news is particularly heavy or interesting. The Bush-Rather exchange struck this viewer as being both of those things, and worth a few minutes beyond the point where Rather dropped his midsentence guillotine on Bush's final nonanswer.
This abrupt ending left Rather looking boorish and rude, as Bush may have hoped from the beginning, when he set the confrontational tone for the encounter.
But the issue is not manners, respect or Bush's tactics. Contained in this clash is the problem of the diminishing national attention span, a phenomenon denounced in recent months from the left by Barbara Tuchman and from the right by Allan Bloom in separate descriptions of how America is becoming "a visual culture" (Tuchman's phrase) cut adrift from a coherent intellectual mooring (Bloom's thesis).
By failing to keep those pent-up commercials on the leash for a little longer and going the extra mile to show it was vital for Bush to answer the questions, CBS inadvertently pointed up the diminished priority Americans attach to the substance of politics as compared to business and entertainment.
In contrast to what would probably have happened here, apparently no one at CBS thought seriously of trying to extend this remarkable encounter a little longer by advising affiliates to stay with an exchange that could conceivably affect the outcome of this year's election.
Instead, CBS spokesmen lined up yesterday to point out how "unprecedented" it was to conduct a live interview of almost nine minutes on the evening news. Ninety-minute live political interviews in prime time are not unusual in Europe. And the fact that the CBS news program is carried in English, with French subtitles, on one of the six national channels here on the morning after it is broadcast in the United States is another measure of the attention news shows get.
One obvious change that should come out of this debacle is for U.S. networks to permit prime-time news programs more flexibility in how long an unconventional show runs.
It seemed to be the ticking clock that most agitated Rather as the interview advanced but Bush's answers to the Iran-contra questions did not. "You know I have a limited time here," Rather said testily at several points, identifying the problem he faced and the ally Bush had enlisted on his side.
The vice president is clearly far more successful than is Gary Hart (you know, Donna Rice's friend) in running the kind of flanking operation that makes reporters and editors, and their tactics, the issue rather than the politician's own record. The ease with which Bush accomplished this on Monday night and the expressions of support he immediately won were impressive and, I would hope, sobering for any journalist.
Perhaps victory does lie in this direction for Bush. Certainly journalists as a group have managed to leave with the public an impression of being arrogant and superficial in dealing with national values and goals and have become soft targets.
But the candidates should consider what kind of victory this would be. Bush vs. Rather signifies a new and more serious stage of this goofy political year, in which the politicians and the press alternate in attacking and belittling not only each other but their professions and the public life in which they are both engaged.
What Rather's perceived failure and Bush's tactical success suggest is that it is the very structure of the way in which modern commercial media cover and shape our political life, including but not limited to campaigns, that needs much more thought and examination on a national basis.