Televised fiascos

Sandy Grady

September 18, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- EVER HAVE one of those days when your car won't start, the dog throws up on your best suit, the bank bounces your check, and a co-worker you dislike gets a raise?

That's the kind of day the U.S. Senate had Monday.

The world's most exclusive debating society got buffaloed by Ollie North, Clarence Thomas and Robert Gates. At least the senators have an alibi.They can blame it on television.

Sure, politicians thrive on the tube. They jostle for camera position like NFL defensive ends. But there's a peculiar chemistry at work when a senatorial committee grills somebody on national TV. Eventually senators look like bullies. And the pigeon winds up as a star.

Maybe it's the underdog affect. Maybe its the lopsided sight of a senatorial firing squad blasting questions at a lone captive. If the pigeon is well-rehearsed and a winsome actor, he magnetizes public sympathy.

And the senators come off as inept, grandstanding buffoons.

We all saw it happen to Oliver North. Here's a guy who thumbed his nose at the Constitution, busted laws and ran his own foreign policy. But on TV in front of a gargantuan House-Senate panel, Ollie's Marine medals, his gap-toothed grin and aw-shucks style wowed the public. "Olliemania" erupted.

Monday a judge threw out North's convictions because -- get this -- his case was tainted by his congressional television testimony.

"I'm exonerated completely," whooped North, who's free to give his $25,000 lectures and run for office.

"The hearings were more important than the trial," said Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a leader of the Iran-contra panel. "The public deserved to hear the facts."

True. But the honorables will think twice before giving immunity to a miscreant in their lust to make him squirm on television.

Television clearly worked to the advantage of Clarence Thomas. Indeed, it's one reason he will be confirmed for the Supreme Court. The Thomas hearings were a five-day made-for-TV game show. Instead of "What's My Line," it should have been called "Who Am I?"

Endlessly, Thomas disavowed the inflamatory rhetoric he'd gushed as a Reagan conservative. Had he once trashed civil rights leaders Justice Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Wendell Holmes? Now Justice-to-be Thomas no longer believed such rightwing guff.

The disappearing judge didn't seem to believe anything.

"I hoped to look into your soul," complained Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., "but the shades are down."

Sure, his White House handlers learned from the Reagan-Bush campaigns (and from Robert Bork's defeat) how to succeed on television -- fudge the facts, win on style. Thomas was a slick learner.

But Democrats who griped about Thomas' evasiveness also had themselves to blame. They lost the TV audience by grilling Thomas about "natural law" (a meaningless muddle) and abortion (70 times, a question he easily dodged). But they rarely quizzed Thomas about his stance, peculiar for his history as a black man, against affirmative action.

That was Dem cowardice. They fear Bush will kill them with the "Q-word" (racial job quotas) in the next election. So Thomas, despite his vanished beliefs, came across on TV screens as a reasonable, stable, bright man tormented for 30 hours by Senate persecutors. Who could dislike a solid guy from Pin Point, Ga., who spoke movingly of his grandfather, and was backed by an interracial family scene?

Television also worked its magic for Robert Gates.

Sure, Gates said he'd made "misjudgments" at the CIA as Robert Casey's No. 2 guy. But when questioned about Iran-contra he sounded like a Thomas parrot: "I don't remember, senator . . . I don't recollect that conversation . . . I wasn't paying attention."

Maybe the White House had learned the trick of getting its guys confirmed: frontal lobotomy.

Once again Democrats were stymied. "I hope your memory loss improves," growled Sen. Howard Metzenbuam, D-Ohio, who set a doubleheader record (Thomas and Gates) for strikeouts.

And again, Bob Gates appeared on TV as a decent, loyal, bright, trustworthy man bullied by Senate heavies for his fuzzy memory.

Television Rebound strikes again.

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