Too much Ross, too much Murphy

Jon Margolis

September 23, 1992|By Jon Margolis

HEREWITH a metaphysical dichotomy.

Whaaaat?

OK, let's try it in English. Today's exercise contains an internal contradiction.

It starts with the premise that too much time and attention are being lavished on matters that are not worth any time or attention at all.

So far, no problem. But in order to demonstrate the premise, it is necessary to lavish some time and attention on the very matters unworthy of them.

The solution, perhaps, is (consistent with the theme of internal contradiction) lavishment-in-brief, minimal mention of those matters too maximally mentioned.

At any rate, it seems to be a necessary exercise. It was not even a month ago that the people who decide what is important were wondering how huge would be the political impact of family values. You'd think they'd learn.

But no. Simply consider the latest furor over Ross Perot, the man who can't leave ill enough alone.

Among the things Mr. Perot apparently failed to figure out in July was that those who do not run for office are not paid as much attention as those who do.

For healthy people, this poses no problem. Mr. Perot, however, is obviously afflicted with Jesse Jacksonitis, defined in the politico-medical journals as "functional inability to accept obscurity, usually marked by an obsessive search for any working television camera."

Having been off the front pages for a few days, Mr. Perot sought out a working camera before which he could sit and say that while he wasn't really going to run for president he might, under certain circumstances, stand for president.

Considering his ailment, Mr. Perot should not be condemned for this behavior. Why, though, did the folks who owned that camera consent to let him sit in front of it? And why did so many people take his comments so seriously that the weekend was dominated by analysis of them?

As it happens, there is an answer to these questions. For reasons that surpass understanding, once someone has been famous, he or she is judged to be forever important, whether or not he or she has much of a following.

Mr. Perot has a following. It's very small, having been diminished by his own actions. He is not going to win the presidency, or even a state. It is conceivable that he could be a spoiler, but only if people keep taking him more seriously than he ought to be taken. Let's pitch in and get him a therapist and save air time and newsprint space for matters that matter.

Then there is "Murphy Brown," toward which Vice President Quayle last week declared a "truce," as though a TV sitcom was ever worthy of war.

It is not, not any more than the vice president's inconsequential spelling error rendered it reasonable to do anything more than make gentle fun of him.

"Murphy Brown" is merely a collection of light fictions that appeals to some 30 percent of the people. De gustibus, as they used to say in parts of the Bronx. If the vice president doesn't like it, he should join the 70 percent of us who don't watch it. If he wants to express his disapproval, he ought to apply for a job as a TV critic, where his comments would appear in the soft-news sections of the papers, where they belong.

There is always the possibility that the entire brouhaha was a plot devised by the show's producers, who have gotten about $20 million of advertising for free. But Mr. Quayle is too honest a person to have gone along with such a thing knowingly. And who among us would suggest that he could be duped?

Actually, there is also an explanation for the excessive attention given to the "Murphy Brown" flap: the increasing tendency to confuse what is real and what appears on movie or television screens.

The other morning one of the serious Washington TV talk shows invited actors Richard Dreyfuss and Charlton Heston to debate Hollywood's impact on politics, and introduced them by showing film snippets of Mr. Dreyfuss playing a Latin dictator and Mr. Heston playing Moses.

As it turned out, the two actors were remarkably articulate, reasonable and (to the dismay of the TV folks who wanted a nasty confrontation) civil toward one another. But what was this assumption that they were qualified to discuss public issues because of roles they had played in the movies? Did anybody ask Jimmy Stewart his views on political reform just because he starred in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"?

That was before politics became show business, and vice versa. The current situation only leads to more and more cognitive dissonance, as they say in those precincts where people really talk about metaphysical dichotomies.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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