Some images are inescapable. In early 1992, I was in the men's room of a Cape Girardeau restaurant. There staring up at me was the visage of Saddam Hussein, imprinted on the strainer in the urinal. It was brand new. The Gulf War had been over for months, and President Bush was still riding the crest of his popularity. But at that moment, I knew he had no better chance than I did of being reelected.
The popularity of CNN suffered a similar fate. It was our primary source of news about the war, so important that even General Colin Powell and Saddam himself tuned in daily. Its audiences were the largest in the network's history. Christiane Amanpour, Charles Jaco, and Peter Arnet became instant celebrities. Afterwards, CNN's ratings dropped off to their normal levels. But now that network and its many imitators that have sprung up since are a well-known part of the media environment where audiences know they can turn first for prominent news.
Over the past weekend, when the Iraq situation reached its first crisis of the November sweeps, it was instructive to see how CNN and its erstwhile competition were covering the event. CNN did its normal credible job of concentrating on the matter at hand with reports from correspondents at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the UN, as well as from its overseas bureaus in London, Moscow, Baghdad, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. There was even a special edition of The Larry King Show on the subject. I generally felt in touch.
By contrast, the Fox News Channel had Bill O'Reilly hosting yet another exposé on the Clinton Impeachment Hearings. I guess that the folks at Fox thought that preparing us for six hours of Ken Starr live was more riveting than bombs over Baghdad. CNBC, a network that's never found its niche, had a special on world-class kayakers. Only MSNBC also focused on Iraq. But it did so in a talk show hosted by has-been actor Charles Grodin whose makeup was right out of the mortuary. He was interviewing some geek from a minor think tank, with sugar-bowl ears and a bow tie, who kept claiming that Saddam wasn't such a bad guy. If I were running CNN, I wouldn't lose much sleep over the competition.
Of course, once Washington called off the attack, all the news networks were chock full of pundits making sure that we knew right from wrong, and predicting with assurance what would happen next. I figure that Saddam stays in place for the foreseeable future for several reasons. First, he's a perfect whipping boy for the President who occasionally needs some good, theatrical news coverage. Second, the price of oil is low so we don't need to bring Iraq back on line to drive it down. And finally, the number two man in the White House, who wants to be number one, might want Saddam around during the year 2000 election to remind us that it was a President named Bush who left him there.