TV: Dead or Alive? Why the Talking Heads Didn’t Talk

On election night, Tom Brokaw sat in his chair, looking like Sylvester the Cat hiding Tweety Bird in his mouth.

Peter W. Kaplan's column, in the Nov. 23, 1992 edition of the Observer.
Peter Kaplan’s column, in the Nov. 23, 1992 edition of the Observer.

“I remember in the old days, five, six years ago, we used to go out into the fine jungle of live television. It was an exquisite sensation—a little like making love, a little like being in the electric chair—to know that one million people were listening to you at that instant … Now it’s more like cold coffee.”

That was Norman Mailer in January 1963. If anything surprising happened to television in 1992, it was that the juice went back into it: TV was live once more. And I mean live. Little cameras were everywhere, showing nose hairs and cold sores on candidates, wherever they might be.

Of course, nothing is better for that than election night, although this year something strange happened. Television was simultaneously live and dead. Anchors and reporters sat there smiling at you, trying desperately to get the message across like P.O.W.s blinking Morse code at the camera. After 30 years of making elections, TV was behind events. That hadn’t happened since before computers, but now all the networks shared Warren Mitofsky’s voter preference survey. It may have saved them money, but you couldn’t help miss that old brutal rush to call Ohio first, and Dan Rather beaming over a 15-second victory over NBC.

But now they were all worried about Government regulation and syndication rules and Congressional investigations into whether TV was killing the Hawaii vote. So as election night unfolded, TV ran after it like a man in a relay race who had tied his own shoes together: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Mr. Rather kept apologizing, telling us they could do better if they really wanted to. They were relegated to a strange winking system, subtly hinting that they knew the thing was a done deal but that finer instincts were keeping them from saying so. Tim Russert, the uncontested star of the Presidential year (whose Sunday Meet the Press ratings were leaping over the aging but still-fine Brinkley program) came on the air at around 8 P.M., bloated at the gills with information, practically ready to explode like a David Cronenberg character. But he had to keep referring to what would happen in a “Clinton Administration or a second Bush Administration” (he was turning from magenta to scarlet as he uttered the second part).

The networks went on to interview practically the entire Western world of politics. Artichoke-colored Bush advisers Robert Teeter and Lynn Martin, the last loyalists, drifted on, knowing fully that Bill Clinton had been elected before the truck drivers had finished their coffee at dawn, but they kept tight; same with George Stephanopoulos. Mr. Brokaw sat in his chair, looking like Sylvester the Cat hiding Tweety Bird in his mouth. The networks were practically giddy with suppressed information: At one point, Mr. Brokaw used the word “pithy” to describe somebody, to which John Chancellor chortled, “I’ll thay!”

So it was a frustrating evening in that sense. But on the other hand, we had some satisfaction. We had outstripped TV; we no longer really needed to be told who won. Viewers can read faces and glances on TV. We’re used to it. Who needs words? The evening crawled on past Michigan, past Ohio, right on to the West Coast, so that at 11 P.M. at long last, they could say that the age of Bill had begun.

The first real spectacle of the Clinton years, the first really crucial video clip, was the triumphant rally in Little Rock on election night. A mob, outdoor lights, the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion; a rocking stage, Chelsea’s Victorian frizzes blowing in the night, Hillary pulling the victory speech from her suit pocket and handing it to her husband; the two men body-hugging (sure to be a national trend); James Carville blasting into the air in his aqua nylon jacket; the Gore girls. There’s a turn-of-the-American century quality about all this: both Bill and Al are kind of windbags, just right for the 1890’s; if they grew mutton chops they’d remind us of Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes. Bill got up and talked for a good long time about a place called Hope, and then, sometime around one in the morning, Al got up and gave a nice little 20-minute address on the state of the American Democracy. “Whatever else you can say about them,” remarked Mark Shields, still awake on Channel 13, “they aren’t members of the Silent Generation.”

By Wednesday, Nov. 4, Ted Koppel had put together the Instant Election Show. I remember watching the black-and-white Making of the President, 1960 documentary and thinking what great instant history it was. But amazingly, Mr. Koppel’s crew got their show on the air in 24 hours. The next day! ABC had been allowed to spend 72 hours through Election Day with Mr. Clinton, on the condition that the material be embargoed for broadcast until after the election. The result was a great snapshot that opened with Mr. Koppel blowing the ballgame for his colleagues: Both the networks and the campaigns, he said, were involved in a giant conspiracy not to tell us what they knew, the campaigns driven by self-interest and the networks deferentially accommodating them.

The raw show captured little glimpses of the true sparks of American politics. It wasn’t great on narrative or analysis, but it was as close to the event as we were allowed to come. The star of the show was Mary Matalin’s man, Mr. Carville, the Clinton campaign manager who sat
for a New Yorker profile earlier in the year, but who really was made for Norman Mailer, circa 1963. What a fine talk they would have had! First, Mr. Carville spoke to his campaign staff in the Little Rock war room and broke down crying when he said, his mouth full of Cajun vowels, that “outside of a person’s love, the most sacred thing a person can give is his labor—and … any time you can combine labor with love—you’ve made a merger.” Soon after came the floodgates. This was a new breed of hardass, complete with sentimental education.

Later, as he sat in his rugby shirt with a bottle of Budweiser, eyes blinking under his giant brow, Mr. Carville sat in the open stare of a video camera and gave Mr. Koppel an existential explanation of how it felt to win the Presidency: “I can’t sort it out,” he said. “I really can’t sort it out. For all of my life I’ve thought about how I’d feel on a day like today. I’ve dreamed about it. When I jogged I’d think about it. When I was driving cars and riding in airplanes I’d think about it. And it sounds stupid, but I just really don’t know what I think. I think the thing is …”

Then he trailed off. So Mr. Koppel asked him what it was like to leave the campaign. And once more, Mr. Carville reared back, personifying—maybe—the existential professional. “It’s severed,” he said of the campaign itself. “I mean it’s gone. It’s all different right now. It, it’s just, it’s so immediate: When it’s over, it’s just like over. Boom. I mean, you go and you have a couple of drinks and you tell some stories about New Hampshire, you know and that kind of stuff, but it’s like, Boom. Done. Serious. And I’ll get to go pontificate and go to big schools and be a great citizen and that’ll be fun … but you can never come back. There’s never going to be another war room, there’s never going to be that sort of electricity. I’m never going to walk in a place like this again.”

Finally, Ted interviewed the Governor. They talked for a while. The most interesting part of the conversation wasn’t shown until Nightline, when Mr. Cinton said that he had buried his dog Zeke in back of the Governor’s mansion. Then Mr. Koppel look at him, seriously, and said: “Has anyone told you yet—you look different?” Mr. Clinton looked at Mr. Koppel, his hands stuffed into his overcoat pockets. Not sure if he was supposed to take him seriously, he emitted a short, barking, open-mouthed laugh. But somehow, it seemed, he knew that what Mr. Koppel said was true. And so did the camera.

TV: Dead or Alive? Why the Talking Heads Didn’t Talk