In Washington these days, it takes a gimmick to get people to focus on anything other than the war and the gimmick is often the war itself. So when Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) walked into a Senate news conference Thursday on legislation to combat lead poisoning, he had thought about how to begin.
"If Saddam Hussein were poisoning 3 million of our children," he said, "the people of America would cry out for revenge." Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), another sponsor of the legislation, had his own variant. "We hear a lot about stealth weapons," he said. "Lead poisoning is a stealth disease."
The four senators at the session had come equipped not just with metaphors but with visual aids: products from bread wrappers to auto batteries made with lead, which they said wound up polluting the environment.
But despite the absence of any distracting events on the floor of Congress, only 15 people went to the Senate Radio and Television Gallery for the event. Two were lawyers representing battery manufacturers; two were staff members from congressional offices in lead-producing regions; two came from Bush administration agencies that might be affected by the bill. The press contingent, such as it was, included two business publications, six people from newspapers in the home states of the participating senators and one radio reporter from United Press International.
The next day, Michael Jones, the press secretary to the senator with the biggest home-state contingent, Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), said he had seen only one story, a page four article and picture in the Newark Star-Ledger.
In a capital preoccupied by war news, public discussion of other serious national issues is lost. Congressional hearings and news conferences that usually generate extensive media coverage receive scant attention -- or none. Politicians, congressional staff aides, lobbyists, interest group representatives who compete daily for valuable media access scramble to find new ways to promote a cause or a client.
Even the old standby of bringing celebrities no longer works.
Hollywood actress Suzanne Sommers, for example, came to publicize a "good works" cause: improving public understanding of problems of children with alcoholic parents. Talk show appearances were set, along with visits with members of Congress and their wives and finally congressional testimony. Almost no one noticed.
The "Larry King Live" television program canceled her scheduled appearance Monday night. Other programs also canceled. "We'll put her back on when the war's over," her publicist, Leonard Arzt, says he was told by producers.
"We try to say that life goes on, but the war's definitely on everybody's mind," Arzt said. "Definitely if you're in the media placement business, or trying to get people's attention through the media, it's been a real uphill battle because of the war."
Even proven masters of the media find themselves frustrated, and often shut out.
Ralph Nader scheduled a news conference last Monday morning to announce a new project on government procurement. The idea was to promote new ways of government spending to conserve energy, protect the environment, stimulate the market for safer, more efficient products and decrease America's dependence on foreign energy supplies, a critical factor in the Persian Gulf War. News releases were prepared and sent to Washington news bureau chiefs, environmental and federal reporters. The Nader news conference was duly listed on the wire service "Day Book" that provides a daily guide for Washington news events.
When the news conference began at 10:30 a.m. only one person attended, and that was a representative from the nuclear industry who took the documents and left. Never had he experienced so poor a response to a public event, Nader told an aide, Eleanor Lewis. "It is a serious impediment," she said of the lack of coverage. "You can't recoup what you've lost. And this project is particularly timely."
Much more than PR gamesmanship or bruised egos of media celebrities is at stake. "Everybody is distracted," says Lance Morgan, now of the public relations firm of Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery and a veteran Capitol Hill aide, "but the hardest part is that it applies to very serious subjects like domestic policy issues. We have a limited attention span here anyway and a limited amount of time and space in the newspapers and TV for discussion of pressing issues. When everything is riveted on the war, nothing else matters unless you can relate to it with a war angle."
So the war is used to make a point, or pry scarce funds from a Congress facing record deficits in midst of war and recession.
Thus, at an appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Smithsonian Institution budget recently, the question of building an extension to the Air and Space Museum was debated. The Virginia congressional delegation, lobbying for the extension to be built near Dulles Airport, argued that when the Persian Gulf War is over "there will doubtless be more 'artifacts' that need a home at the Smithsonian" and the proposed new Virginia extension.
Washington's preoccupation with war has another effect. It not only drives out examination of major public issues, it also works to the advantage of people and cases that have been the focus of "bad news" stories.
A perfect example is the case of "The Keating Five," those senators facing ethical misconduct hearings in connection with the savings and loan scandal.
They may be the only Washingtonians not complaining about the preoccupation with war news.