Gorbachev, Yeltsin come to grips with participatory TV

September 07, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A farmer from Iowa stood up and asked Mikhail Gorbachev how we can get the harvest from our heartland to dinner tables in the Soviet republics. A Cuban-American in Miami asked Boris Yeltsin if Russia was now going to pull its troops and arms out of Cuba.

And a woman from San Francisco wondered, "How's Raisa?"

It was TV, American Style -- and Global Politics, TV Style -- Thursday night and early yesterday morning as ABC finally got its live "National Town Meeting" on the air. After two postponements last week because of emergency meetings of the Soviet parliament, did the show live up to the hype?

Overall, it was stunning to see Gorbachev and Yeltsin -- literally in the middle of wrestling a future for their country from the jaws of anarchy -- addressed by Americans gathered in television studios across the country. It was another example of the changes television has wrought in the way nations are run.

And some of the audience questions were incisive. A Catholic priest in Philadelphia asked both men for their religious beliefs. Someone else asked who controls nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, one query could have come straight from "The Dating Game": A man in Los Angeles asked both leaders, "What would you most like to change about your partner?"

The answers were not so hot. Gorbachev repeatedly talked about "new cooperation" and about how change "takes time." The Yeltsin bluntness that Jennings had told viewers to expect never really materialized.

But let's not overstate the process at hand. ABC airs these "town meetings" to tap into our most romanticized notions of participatory government. But many of the questioners selected by ABC had an agenda. They ranged from relatives of victims of a jetliner shot down by the Soviets to officials of CitiBank. This is not exactly vox populi.

Still, imagine the framers of our Constitution taking time in 1789 during the Philadelphia convention to sit down and answer question via satellite from folks in England or France. To some extent, that's what we were seeing Thursday night.

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