"In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is King."
To this viewer, watching with two eyes, both George Bush and Dan Rather lost. That was transparently clear.
Not as clearly defined, but probably more important in the long run, are two other losers: the news media and public.
It was inevitable, given the facts of life in this media age of instant gratification, that the immediate aftermath of the gladiatorial game between Bush and Rather would be to tote the points scored by the two combatants. Who beat whom, vice president or anchorman? Stay tuned, citizens, as we bring you the latest instantaneous polls and analysis to help you decide who's No. 1 this time, big politician or big media pooh-bah.
Not surprisingly, each fighter played characteristic roles in simultaneously claiming victory and appealing for understanding of noble intentions.
Once again, Bush demonstrated a need to play John Wayne. His post-encounter rhetoric was martial, his manner hot-blooded macho male.
"I need combat pay for last night, I'll tell you," he said on the campaign trail the next day.
Bush let people know how tough it had been and how bravely he had handled the heat. "It's tension city when you're in there," he said. In remarks recorded through an open microphone after the fray, he employed the argot of the ring: "The bastard didn't lay a glove on me." He boasted that his latest experience under fire had tested and tempered him, making him even more ready for "combat" with his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination.
All of this was familiar. This, after all, was the same person who boasted that he was "going to kick a little ass" when he debated Geraldine A. Ferraro on television four years ago in the last presidential campaign.
Far from putting to rest questions about what I think is a spurious "wimp factor" surrounding Bush, his latest bravado calls attention to it.
It wasn't strong, silent, long-suffering John Wayne that he resembled. He seemed more like Richard M. Nixon, who displayed an obsessive need to keep boasting publicly how bravely he bore the ordeal of crisis after crisis. The likelihood, thus, is that Bush will continue to face a personal question couched along these lines:
Why would a man of proven courage in actual wartime combat, possessing superb credentials earned throughout a long career of public service, feel so compelled to reassure the public about his manhood in a patently vainglorious manner that rings so false?
His appearance with Rather Monday night did nothing to resolve questions about his role in the Iran-contra affair. By trying repeatedly to shun these inquiries, he all but guarantees that he will be forced to confront them just as repeatedly during the campaign.
If his was victory, it was purchased at heavy cost.
Rather, too, could hardly be proclaimed a winner. He played Sgt. Joe Friday: Just doin' my job, thank you, just trying to get the facts. He also stirred memories of an unctuous Nixon.
"Trying to ask honest questions and trying to be persistent about answers is part of a reporter's job and, however it might be seen at any given time, the intention of even persistent questions in a spirited interview is to do an honest, honorable job," he explained to his network audience the next night.
He added, gazing sincerely into the camera, that "the fact that more attention is sometimes given to the heat than the light is regrettable, but it goes with the territory."
That is quite true, of course, but also quite aside from the point. His questions were legitimate and the subject significant, but clearly, as the colloquy progressed, he crossed the line. He became not interrogator but inquisitor. He lectured Bush, debated him as if he were a rival candidate and finally, in a moment to be long remembered, posed a key question, answered it himself and then peremptorily cut the vice president off the air.
To viewers, this seemed to affirm the views of those who criticize the arrogance of the omnipotent media.
The biggest loser is likely the public. Mutual protestations of innocence aside, each side in this drama tried to sandbag the other. Each played a cynical game guaranteed to generate a cynical response.
An American public already conditioned to doubt what it sees on television, and to disbelieve what it hears from politicians, has been given new reason for distrust. Even a one-eyed man in the country of the blind could see that.