Heavy dose of reality

RUSSELL BAKER

November 13, 1991|By Russell Baker

REALITY dropped in on America twice last week. One visit any time is remarkable; two in a week, extraordinary. Press and television were flabbergasted. They are so benumbed by make-believe that so much reality was bound to make them lTC giddy.

The first visit occurred at midweek. Scattered election results, subjected to intense scrutiny, revealed that, yes -- yes! -- there really was a middle class. What a commotion in the press. What an upsetment in television. "Middle Class Lives!"

This was followed almost instantly, so swift is the analytic genius of the media, by "Middle Class Suffers!" What it suffers has, of course, been obvious for months to everybody not addicted to kidding himself. For the first time in maybe 50 years people who cannot be dismissed as shiftless louts are worrying about how they are going to pay the doctor, pay the rent and pay the butcher.

To recognize this had been impolite until last week's elections, for press and television, despite conservative belief that they are hotbeds of Bolshevism, have been exceedingly timid about offending Republican presidents since the Washington Post took on Richard Nixon way back when.

Not surprisingly then, they largely accepted the official statistics and official pronouncements from official pronouncement issuers, and played the Republican tune on the economy, which went, "Let's make believe and keep our fingers crossed." With last week's elections, economic reality finally became an acceptable subject for press and TV to dwell upon.

The more timid received official approval to say "hard times" when the president canceled a grand tour of Asia, obviously to create the perception that he preferred to stay home and deal with the causes of middle-class discontent.

Before the country could relish this rare onset of reality about the economy it was confronted by Earvin "Magic" Johnson forcing it to face another reality, which is that AIDS is a disease that threatens absolutely everybody. So far it has been politically and economically convenient to consider it an affliction visited only on certain luckless minorities.

As Johnson pointed out with such eloquence in his news conference, it can strike even the noblest among us, and surely will, if not directly then through those we love. The media response to Magic was an astonishing torrent of film and print such as one rarely sees except for the start of wars and the fall of tyrants. It filled newspapers and television for three or four days, instantly obliterating from memory the big midweek visit of economic reality.

This is one reason reality has such a hard time surviving in America. Media overdosing quickly wears out reality's welcome, stimulating appetites for the relief of make-believe. After bombardments of news about the pain of unemployed fathers and the despair of young home buyers in a world of $150,000 "starter homes," we want to cry out: "Enough! I've been hit by reality from my cradle. Now stuff me with fun!"

Magic Johnson may escape this destiny and keep the country at grips with reality for the long run. Let's hope so. The precedents, however, are not encouraging. Remember Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf? Remember everybody saying he might be a good presidential candidate? That was right after he led the armies to victory in the desert war. Remember the desert war? Remember the victory?

The overwhelming media absorption in Magic's case reflects the astonishing importance which Americans give to sports and sports heroes. To be sure, it helps that Earvin Johnson is not just another sports hero, but also a gentleman of surpassing charm. Still, is there any actor, any statesman, any warrior, any politician less than a sitting president who could produce such massive outpourings by announcing that he had tested positive for HIV?

Sports are almost as hostile to reality as politics. Sports lull us with romantic speechifying about the glory of team and teamwork while it corrupts our universities and exploits poor talented kids not quite talented enough ever to play in Magic's league. Politics beguiles us with shabby hocus-pocus which creates "images" and "perceptions" to distract us from realities.

Magic Johnson has shown us how to deal elegantly with reality. It's something refreshing in sports, as it would be in politics.

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