On the street, in the subway, through the halls of New York University, your reasonably attentive columnist hasn’t overheard one single word on the subject of Iraq, the United Nations weapons inspections, the possibility of war. Not one bloody word, not one patient or pacific word-no word at all. For all the furrowed United Nations brows in media circulation, for all the hushed anchorly tones and stern news magazine covers, civic adrenaline is simply not pumping. After the Cold War, the national enemy crisis continues. Even Saddam Hussein seems to have lost his power to chill. The Secretary of Defense may have gotten a rise out of pundits by using a five-pound sugar bag as a prop to show how little anthrax bacillus could wipe out half the population of Washington, but the result is the mother of all yawns.
This may well be as the White House prefers. It’s a delicate game, after all, stoking up American opinion enough to support military force without reaching a boiling point that makes maneuvering difficult. The lesson all administrations have learned from Vietnam is, Do not casually tickle the nose of the great beast of public opinion, for when it gets aroused, it does not go back to hibernating easily. But the relative public calm about terrorist attacks, even after the latest World Trade Center convictions, seems to have penetrated many a pundit’s heart. Even Rush Limbaugh, on Meet the Press Nov. 16, sounded mighty restrained-as did the guest he followed, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf; and one week later, the two right arms of punditry, Robert Novak and William Safire, wrestled each other to a standstill, with Mr. Novak, filled with compassion for starving Iraqi children, calling for an end to sanctions.
I confess to having been startled to see Mr. Limbaugh, whose respect for facts is not his most noteworthy quality, given his bully platform, so I called host Tim Russert to ask about Meet the Press ‘ policy on choosing the round-table guests who come in during the second half of the show. The estimable Mr. Russert, commercial television’s best-prepared public affairs host, told me: “We try to have a wide-ranging exchange of views and ideas. Limbaugh speaks to 20 million Americans weekly. He’s probably engaged in more political discussion than anyone.” A list of the show’s guests over the past two months does reveal a rough balance between the two sides of the center. When I asked Mr. Russert about Mr. Limbaugh’s record as factually challenged, he sidestepped. “I think the mission is to say to the country, You may not agree with his positions, but no one can question that he’s accomplished as a radio talk-show host. John Chancellor said, ‘Television’s the best lie detector there is.’ That’s my view.”
Still, one would like to see the Sunday shows serve as more than a sounding board for overexposed pundits. Does Mr. Limbaugh truly lack for exposure? Any American from the tundra to the Everglades who is curious about his opinions can tune him in each and every day. Regardless of one’s disposition toward the United Nations’ sanctions, surely there are analysts whose views of the matter might be somewhat more worthy of attention than those of Messrs. Limbaugh, Novak and Safire. Where are the British, French and Israeli experts on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons? Occasionally, one sees them quoted in the papers, but rarely on the tube. One need not be predisposed to the views of the knowledgeable skeptics to want to hear their side of the debate, too. Isn’t anyone else curious as to why America is more alarmist about monstrous Iraqi weaponry than anyone else?
Note on Lapsed Religion : With all the religiosity flying around popular culture these days, I had hopes for Tony Kushner’s adaptation of S. Ansky’s classic Dybbuk , at the Public Theater. But the production, directed by Brian Kulick, disappointed because it was terrestrially bound. Leah, the possessed bride (Marin Hinkle), gave up a convincingly otherworldly ghost, but the rest of the players were more earnest than haunting. There is still rattling around in my mind the splendid Joseph Chaikin production of some 20 years ago, when the dybbuk who possessed the soul of his true love spoke from behind her, simultaneously, in a double’s sepulchral voice. The dybbuk of great performances haunts us.
Note on Historian’s Lapse : On Nov. 19, the Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom had a letter in The New York Times maintaining that Barry Goldwater was out of step with his fellow Republicans when he campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mr. Thernstrom cites Republican percentages upward of 80 percent on civil rights legislation. Following is my own letter in response, which The Times did not find fit to print:
To the Editor: Stephan Thernstrom maintains that the Republican Party has long rejected Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that the proof of this is that Republicans in Congress supported the bill at the time. Would that it were so simple! Consider the Party’s national standard-bearers in subsequent years. George Bush, in his race for the Senate in 1964, took his standard-bearer Barry Goldwater’s position. Ronald Reagan, in his first race for governor in 1966, also opposed the bill on the grounds that it “infringed on the individual rights of citizens.” While declaring that he had changed his views later on, because civil rights was now institutionalized, Mr. Reagan launched his 1980 Presidential campaign with a speech in Philadelphia, Miss., site of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, where he told an almost entirely white crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.” This is not even to speak of the views of other powerful Republicans, like the born-again ex-segregationist Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, the latter of whom called the Civil Rights Act “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”