. . . But Clinton can hardly afford to ignore it

Tom Baxter

February 05, 1993|By Tom Baxter

IF THOSE who have complained so loudly about talk radio in the past few days have their political wits about them, they will quit worrying about how reactionary, unfair and distorted it is, and figure out what to do about it.

Right-wing radio shows have been around since the late Joe Pyne. But they have suddenly become a hot topic because of the role they played in the fall of Zoe Baird and the furor over gays in the military. The tidal wave of telephone calls they generated are this week's manifestation of the new age of interactive media, which is changing all politics in its wake.

The folks whose respective oxen have been gored by talk radio make much of the fact that these outbursts of public opinion are orchestrated. But they risk isolating themselves if they dismiss too quickly the emotional response that talk radio thrives on whipping up. The first deadly sin in politics these days is to give the impression that you aren't listening, no matter who is doing the talking.

"The first thing you have to do is distinguish between spontaneous combustion and arson," Paul Begala, speech writer and strategist for President Clinton's campaign, said last week. "Zoe Baird was spontaneous combustion. Gays in the military is arson."

But how do you make that judgment? Here's a suggestion (courtesy of Bert Lance) that the fledgling Democratic administration might want to take up ASAP: Run another 50 or so phone lines into the White House and hook them up to answer ing machines, so that when irate citizens call, they get something besides a busy signal, and let them vent for a couple of minutes.

It might also be a good idea to monitor the recorded calls and answer some -- say, one of every 100, or 1,000. That would give the White House at least some sense of what people are genuinely riled up about.

Whether it takes that advice or not, the Clinton White House has to move quickly to get back ahead of the curve and convince the American public that this administration isn't even more unresponsive and aloof than the last one.

On April 25, a gay rights march will be held in Washington that by some accounts could be the biggest demonstration ever held in the nation's capital. That's an impressive show of strength, but conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh can generate the telephone equivalent of a Washington march every day, and he has the distinct advantage of being able to do it off camera.

Tom Baxter is a columnist for Cox News Service.

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