WASHINGTON — Perhaps Bitburg in the long run will prove more injurious to the Dan Rather administration than to the Ronald Reagan Administration. On the day the President finally made his heavily criticized trip to a West German cemetery, ABC's coverage was anchored by Peter Jennings and NBC's by Tom Brokaw, but where was Danny Rather? Nowhere to be seen.
Surely the biggest crisis that Reagan and his aides have yet visited upon themselves, the trip to a cemetery in which SS troops are buried, had been roundly condemned in the days preceding the event. Brokaw anchored his network's 90 minutes of coverage from New York, and Jennings was on the air for 90 minutes from Bonn.
But CBS coverage lasted only 30 minutes and was handled, badly, by Charles Kuralt, host of the network's unshakably sedate, occasionally sedated, "Sunday Morning" show.
As part of a colossal journalistic misjudgment, CBS was ladling out the canned features of "Sunday Morning" while the other two networks were airing, live, Reagan's speech at Bitburg Air Force base. This was the speech in which Reagan attempted to calm the stormy waters that his visit to the cemetery had stirred up and said apologetically, "Some old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much, because this should be a time of healing."
Reagan's performance was masterful. The network performance was not up to that standard. Many CBS News insiders were embarrassed by the failure of their principal anchor to appear and by the lousiness of the CBS coverage. Indeed, they were humiliated.
CBS, traditionally the No. 1 news network, had missed the significance of an event it had been playing heavily on the news for days and days. Asked about Rather's failure to appear, a CBS spokesman said from London that he had never been scheduled to anchor the coverage.
Rather had taken the Concorde to London the night before Bitburg to preside over a round-table reunion of CBS News correspondents who covered World War II. The discussion aired in three parts on "The CBS Morning News," that really big show that nobody watches.
After he concluded the assignment, Rather returned to New York. The spokesman defended this klutzy deployment of the network's star anchor on the grounds that the round-table was "terribly important to the history of CBS News." Lah-di-dah!
On a day of symbolism, the most prominent CBS symbol next to the company's big eye was absent from view. A viewer tuning in and finding Kuralt where Rather should have been got the message that CBS did not attach much importance to the event.
Interest in the visit was certainly high. There was speculation among media folk during the preceding week about how Reagan would wriggle out of the public disfavor that had greeted his plans to visit the cemetery and the subsequently announced plan to "balance" that visit with a longer one to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.
Late in the week, the word was out: "He's going to cry at Bergen-Belsen." That is what some network sources had heard--that Reagan's speech at the concentration camp would be so passionately, even tearfully, delivered that it would help neutralize criticism of the cemetery visit.
In fact, Reagan did not "cry" but did gulp with emotion during a dramatic portion of the speech. Referring to the 5,000 victims of the Holocaust buried at the site, Reagan said, "Here they lie--never to hope, never to pray, never to love, never to heal, never to laugh, never to cry."
His dramatic pause followed "never to hope." Reagan's eyes were also misty at other points in the speech. ABC took it upon itself to cut away from Reagan as he spoke at Bergen-Belsen and instead show newsreel films of the concentration camp, so that it seemed Reagan was narrating them. This touch had the effect of "punching up" the speech, the kind of thing the White House itself might have inserted.
Kuralt, on CBS, said Reagan had given a speech in which he "seemed to be moved." What a cynical crack. When will these media birds realize that with Ronald Reagan, "seemed to be" and "was" are the same thing?
At the Air Force base, Reagan let Reagan be Reagan. All the elements of the quintessential Reagan speech were there--the personalizing vignettes, the quotations from the terribly convenient supportive letter (this one from a "young girl about to be bat mitzvahed"), the tear-inducing anecdotes (a private truce in a German cottage on Christmas Day, 1944) and of course, the reference to John F. Kennedy.
Dan Rather would have loved it. He really should have been there.