Sometimes I get things right. You may remember that I said it was a bad idea for NBC to rely on has-been wrestlers to win the February ratings war. The peacock apparently heard me, or resorted to common sense, and tabled all plans for a prime-time wrestling extravaganza in the near future. But I also err occasionally, like when I predicted the fallout from the Bill and Monica show would be a generation of boring politicians.
How could I overlook former Vice President Dan Quayle who recently announced his presidential campaign? The same night, he was Larry King's guest, muscling aside the daily impeachment banter for 20 minutes. In the course of the interview, Quayle condemned President Clinton for "undermining our criminal system of justice." Some things never change. But when King asked Bob Woodward, David Gergen, and the other pundits what they thought of Quayle the presidential wannabe, they all said he was a player. At first I thought they were hoping to get him into a card game, but then I realized that there's some warped logic here.
Dan Quayle has name recognition, is reasonably good looking on TV, and apparently is capable of raising the $2500 an hour it takes to mount a presidential campaign. Plus, he'll get plenty of free media attention at the outset just to see if he has something goofy to say about current events. His political style is perfectly suited for 21st century electioneering. It doesn't matter that there is little or no substance to his political agenda beyond winning the election. In that respect, Quayle is no different from Hillary Clinton who's apparently considering a US Senate run in New York.
That's pretty much where we are. Because we can see and hear politics happen, there's not much political journalism anymore. Reporters resemble sports play-by-play and color announcers more every day. They concentrate on the style of play, while every now and then giving us the score as determined by polls or TV ratings. In-depth political news is really feature material, like Larry King Live, or just plain gossip.
Consider the ongoing impeachment trial. The substance is enormous with hundreds of depositions, mountains of evidence, and millions in legal bills. Yet the turning point for this melodrama has been two speeches, one by President Clinton and one by former Senator Bumpers, that relied largely on rhetorical expertise and generalities. Then the media announced the score -- Clinton 70, Republicans 30 -- and even Pat Robertson said the game was over. Style wins again.
Now the Senators are trapped in an archaic process established before TV ratings existed. They literally don't know what to do from one day to the next. And Congressman Hyde, the lead prosecutor, tries so hard to be Sam Erwin, but looks like Captain Kangaroo. Everybody goes through the motions of some indefinite ritual, like a pantomime or what, in a less politically correct era, we used to call a dumb show.
I can't fault the news media. They function in a market-driven environment to give us, the audience, what we want. We too celebrate style over substance. Consider that there are multiple choices of 24-hour TV news networks, news radio, talk radio, National Public Radio, local, regional, and national newspapers and news magazines galore, instant books on any subject, and the Internet full of news sites and political chat rooms. Yet for all this substance, most of us remain blissfully ignorant. That, in a nutshell, is why Dan Quayle is a player in national politics.