"It'll be so exciting it'll make the wax pop out of your ears."
The prophet was CBS anchorman Dan (Tex) Rather. And his ebullient forecast--about the gusher of emotions and electoral projections that would occur at 5 p.m. PST Tuesday when polls had closed in the East--turned out to be as sure as a farm rooster crowing at dawn.
If anyone should be crowing it's viewers, for Tuesday night affirmed that election days give America its most thrilling television, an almost sexual release from the tensions and anxieties that have been building throughout a long political campaign. Television was a great partner. If you were a smoker, you'd light a cigarette.
Granted, just as election day in 1988 was a rouser for Republicans, Tuesday's thrill was undoubtedly greater for those who voted Democratic. Yet partisanship aside, nothing beats the tantalizing experience of watching those state-by-state projections slowly come in, broken by the occasional explosion of results, and savoring the national and local cliffhangers.
An aura of controversy hung over the evening, given the networks' vow to use exit polling to project a national presidential winner--potentially before the 8 p.m. poll closings in the West. But the issue became almost moot when those state-by-state projections announced shortly after 5 p.m. appeared to give Bill Clinton such a commanding electoral lead that viewers could make their own national projection.
And whether this early knowledge stunted turnout--thereby affecting the outcome of other races--may be difficult to determine at this point. To their credit, each of the networks emphasized early in the evening that the presidential race was not yet officially over and, even when the presidential outcome did seem certain, they also urged voters to go to the polls to vote in other races.
The networks used the same source for their exit polling Tuesday, and it wasn't until approximately 7:50 p.m.--when Ohio was projected for Clinton--that they called the presidential race for the Arkansas governor.
Ross Perot beat them by 20 minutes. His televised concession to Clinton came a half hour before polls closed in the West.
Meanwhile, Tuesday night raised suspicions that Perot and the anchorman for CBS News had the same colloquialism writer. Tex Rather predicted that in Little Rock,. Ark., word of Clinton's victory "will spread faster than gossip in a small town." And he promised that when CBS made a projection, "You can bet the baby's milk money on it." His counterparts on ABC, NBC and CNN seemed equally assured.
Yet one of the evening's more interesting facets was the apparent queasiness with which local anchors for network stations reported Rep. Barbara Boxer's projected victory over Bruce Herschensohn (an almost hair-trigger projection that turned out to be accurate) in one of two California Senate races, while noting that she trailed him in early returns and that the race was expected to be extremely tight. And that uneasiness was extended when Boxer delayed her victory speech until late in the evening and when Herschensohn said he wouldn't concede until all the votes had been counted.
Just as noteworthy--and something given resonance by television--was the admirable manner in which Herschensohn publicly refused to make President Bush a scapegoat when given that opportunity by a TV reporter. "If I lose, it's because of me," Herschensohn said firmly and convincingly, providing evidence anew that his candidacy was fueled in part by his skills before the TV camera.
There were other memorable moments: Local anchors and reporters repeatedly stumbling over the word "supervisorial"; the delightful musings of ABC's David Brinkley in a free-flow format that at times freed Peter Jennings from his anchor desk and allowed him to stroll across the election set to chat with Jeff Greenfield and others; abrupt personality changes by some of the candidates and their top aides.
There was Bush, for example, making a gracious concession to Clinton: "I wish him well in the White House." Just the other day, Bush called Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, "bozos."
There was Perot telling his followers: "Let's give Gov. Clinton a big round of applause." Just the other day, Perot labeled Clinton "chicken man."
And on NBC's "Today" program Wednesday, there were Democratic Party chairman Ron Brown and Republican Party chairman Rich Bond, now making nice after a gory campaign in which each repeatedly slammed the other's candidate.
Yet Bond was now saying about Clinton and his forces: "I want to really wish them well and congratulate them on a job well done."
So what is the nation to believe, the election rhetoric or the post-election rhetoric? Were they lying then about the way they felt, or are they lying now? In politics, where does sincerity end and excrement begin?
It's hard not being cynical when you're knee deep in, uh, ear wax.