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Much Ado About Nothing

January 28, 1988

We almost made it through the CBS News nonsense this week with no more than a touch of nausea, but we hadn't counted on the fool political consultants.

Not the political consultants who started dreaming up snappy but not very responsive answers for Vice President George Bush as soon as they heard that Dan Rather, the brash one among the network anchors, would ask about the Iran - Contra affair on the Monday night network news.

That's what some political consultants do for a living, after all, even though anyone who wants to be President of the United States, or even dog-catcher, needs to be held to a higher standard of dialogue than is possible with glib one-liners.

We understand that Rather himself rehearsed for the big moment by hounding a fellow staff member who practiced evading direct answers. So what people saw as a "live" television show was about as spontaneous as a performance of "Much Ado About Nothing." And when Rather began pressing Bush to be more candid about his role in the sale of arms to Iran than he seems to have been, Bush was ready with a classic aggressive evasion: "It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?"

The reference, just to fill in the millions of Americans who had more important things to do than watch television when the event happened, was to a display of temper by Rather. Because a tennis match had been about to spill over into Rather's scheduled newscast, he walked out of the studio, forcing CBS to go dark for seven minutes.

Except that an anchor's temper is hardly an issue on a plane with a presidential candidate's candor, that the answer dodged the question, that the candidate probably used somebody else's bright idea and that the clock stacked the show against Rather from the start, the Vice President's retort was not a bad retort, as retorts go.

No, the consultants we are talking about are the ones who told the vice president that he had run up a huge score by putting the upstart Rather in his place and would gain stature as a candidate for President in next month's Iowa caucuses.

What that bit of advice did, of course, was send the vice president nipping out to the Wyoming prairie, prattling about "tension city" while his campaign manager struggled to find concepts big enough to describe the exchange, passing up shining hour for defining moment. That something under one out of every 10 eligible voters even had the television set turned on during the news show and perhaps even fewer were actually watching when the defining moment came seems not to enter into the way consultants view such events.

These are the political consultants who work day and night trivializing the work of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who shaped a political system that should have produced great leaders for centuries. But it took only a matter of decades for television and ghost writers and consultants to wedge themselves in between the voters and the candidates. Some days they manage to blot out the real world altogether. Monday was one of those days.

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