Business as usual in America is Saddam Hussein's nightmare. One of the worst developments the Iraqi dictator could imagine this weekend would be tens of millions of Americans watching the Bills and Raiders on network TV, followed by the 49ers and Giants.
Then, to lead the evening news, a smiling anchor would say: "Well, folks, it's the Niners and the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Joe meets Bo. In other developments, Iraq fired a couple of more Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, but, as usual, they missed the target."
Big, busy, happy, self-confident America, worrying about getting tickets to the Super Bowl while it methodically bombs him back to the Stone Age -- that's what must give Saddam insomnia. American euphoria one day, followed by American depression the next, followed eventually by American emotional exhaustion, American impatience, American self-doubt and self-flagellation -- that's Saddam's fondest and probably only real hope.
So, by all means, lets have those AFC and NFC title games. The best news of the week may have been the reappearance of soap operas on afternoon TV on Friday. And, by all means, let's gear up for the Super Bowl too. Those of us who've mocked it for years ought to consider loving it this time. Play that baby. Broadcast it on Armed Forces Radio. Only one piece of Persian Gulf news would merit preempting the Ultimate Game: Saddam surrenders.
At the moment, Saddam holds the NFL hostage, just as, to a disgusting degree, he powerfully influences the emotions of millions of Americans. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, in a well-intentioned but completely backward decision, has put Saddam in control of U.S. entertainment. Tagliabue's position is this: If Big News in the Gulf causes NBC to decide to preempt the whole Bills-Raiders game or if CBS decides to preempt the entire time slot for the 49ers and Giants, then the NFL will just postpone the games.
"If events overseas capture the attention of the American public to the degree that they did on Wednesday and Thursday nights, then we feel it would be inappropriate to play," said Joe Browne, spokesman for the oh-so-sensitive NFL.
In other words, the NFL is handing over control of its product to the networks. Ultimately, what the NBC and CBS news divisions decide is what the NFL will do. That's bad enough -- just one more proof that sports is really programming. Either cancel the stupid game or play the game, but don't leave the impression that your two basic considerations are: make TV happy and squeeze the last buck out of those multibillion-dollar network contracts.
Unfortunately, that's not the worst of it. Unless the allied forces launch their ground attack ahead of most expert predictions, the "news" that would be most likely to preempt the NFL this Sunday would probably be Saddam-created news. A terrorist attack. A chemical weapon. Another Scud. As has been proved, it wouldn't even have to be militarily effective to create a "Sun Rises in West" response from our breathless networks.
"Right now, Saddam's using our media like a pro," said a high network sports executive yesterday. "All he has to do is shoot three missiles, kill a palm tree somewhere in the desert and every network preempts its programming and acts like the allied coalition is on the brink of falling apart. It's media-driven hysteria. How are we going to hold public opinion together through a tank war if the public is constantly on an emotional roller coaster ride?"
Some in the NFL have similar feelings. "The American media should not be controlled by Saddam," said a top executive of one of the remaining NFL playoff teams. Gen. Colin L. "Powell said that we should dampen down our enthusiasm. I see it in my own house. My kids think this war is Buck Rogers. That's very false. War is grunts dying in the sand. And that's what this is probably going to come to. What Saddam wants to do is influence American public opinion."
We've all watched our share of around-the-clock CNN reports this week. Being uninformed or uninterested isn't our national problem. What we need to do -- as the secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs have said -- is get used to the idea that we're at war. We can pray for a quick end. But we better prepare for hell. In part, that means getting unglued from the heavy-breathing TV correspondents and back to something resembling normal life.
The whole world knows that, once begun, this is now a war of American resolve. Allowing our emotions to be manipulated and our institutions damaged by every lightweight news "bulletin" that Saddam Hussein can create is not conducive to a swift and imperative victory.